Gambling Review... Problem Gambling in the UK... By Neil Channing


Just last week the Gambling Commission released information for the previous year and confirmed that Problem Gambling was down to 0.3% of the population from 0.6% in the previous 18 months. Public Health England said in 2018 that 24.5 million people gambled, which is 54% of the population, but that number falls to 40% if you exclude National Lottery players. At that time they estimated that 0.5% of the population were PGs. Gambling reformers will often talk about the larger group of people who are classified as "at-risk", (3.8% according to PHE in 2018), plus those negatively affected by someone else's gambling, (7% of the population according to YouGov in 2020), but today I will just talk about those who are PGs, as we are talking about massive changes to gambling becoming law in the Gambling Act, in order to better identify and to benefit those people. I think it's fair to say that around 250,000 people in the country are PGs although obviously I understand that many people would argue that the number is slightly higher or that you need to add the at-risk and those negatively affected which would get the number much higher.


 There is plenty of evidence to suggest that some forms of gambling are much more addictive than others. Hard gaming in the form of casino games is much more likely to cause addiction than playing the National Lottery once a week, scratch cards are a lot worse than entering the weekly draw and online slot machines are designed to stimulate the brain in a way that makes them addictive plus they offer near-misses and small wins to keep players interested. Most people who bet on sports, including those who love horse racing, won't want to defend the online casino businesses and will be Ok with the suggestion that online slots are limited to £2 a spin in the same way as they have been in betting shops.


 The British Medical Journal are pushing for a Public Health Focus. They suggest the law needs to consider all gambling related harms and talk about whether it should be acceptable for families to be struggling to heat their homes while they are gambling before immediately stating that people should be free to choose to spend their money as they wish. They say that those that have created the harm should have no say in how it is dealt with and note the industry likes to talk about helping those affected by PG, but never mentions the causes of this...the marketing and promotion of harmful products. Thirdly they believe that the gambling industry should be responsible for proving activities are not harmful rather than leaving it to others to prove they are harmful, when such evidence may be costly to gather and can be easily misinterpreted. They want a principle of "do no harm" and a Prevention of Gambling Harms Act.


 Clean Up Gambling recently commissioned the CLASS think tank to produce a report looking at the public health implications of the gambling industry. They came up with 12 recommendations which you can find online so I won't repeat them all here, but some are probably ideas that no sports gambler would object to such as a cap on the number of instant deposits within a time limit, the cross selling of products that the customer didn't sign up to engage with being banned or the reality checks, (things like a pop-up asking if you are aware you have been logged-on a long time), being strengthened so that people can't just quickly click without really reading them. Other recommendations of the report have been largely brought in voluntarily by operators so they could be quite easily added to the legislation, and these include the ending of VIP schemes and giving tangible gifts to regular customers. They do call for a few things that most sports gamblers would not want like the end to live streaming of sporting events on a gambling app, mandatory deposit limits and the sharing of data with an outside body being a condition of licensing.


 It's almost a year since Claire Murdoch, the National Mental Health Director for NHS England, called for a compulsory levy on gambling firms to fund treatment. She said it wasn't right that the operators had a voluntary system to decide how much it funded the treatment of addiction. In 2017 the charity Gamble Aware, which gets it's funding from gambling companies, said that the companies were failing to honour their pledges and called for a statutory levy. Operators have been able to choose whether to participate in the scheme that brings in £10m to £16m each year towards treating problem gambling, with £1.2m of the £16m last year going to the funding of NHS-run gambling clinics. Claire Murdoch promised back in 2019 that we would have 14 new PG clinics by the end of 2024 and at that time she was estimating that 400,000 people had an addiction but just 171 people were admitted for pathological gambling. She has now announced that the NHS doesn't want to take money from the industry anymore and that the NHS will fund it's own services from April 1st, although she conceded that industry funding had allowed services to be rolled out quicker. I guess there are arguments on both sides as to whether problem gamblers and their families would find it appropriate that their treatment is being funded by the gambling industry but personally I would think that whatever gets the money to the right places as quickly as possible is the best solution and maybe a levy is the simplest way.


 Gamble Aware fund the 24 hour National Gambling Helpline which started in 2018 and the first clinic was set up in Leeds in 2019, followed by Manchester and Sunderland in 2020. A clinic in London to help under 25s started in 2019. From May this year there will be two new centres opening in Southampton and Stoke on Trent. It's obviously hugely encouraging that government money is being made available to carry out this valuable work although you can never rely on that and there is no guarantee it will continue even at the current levels.


 As usual in all these discussions around the Gambling Review and the contents of the White Paper my worry is that we are potentially harming a massive number of people to benefit a much smaller number. That definitely doesn't mean I am minimalizing the terrible consequences of PG, it just means that I care about the 120,000 jobs that depend on the gambling sector and the horse racing industry and the lives of those people. Almost all of the people who are calling for more stringent reforms of the industry would accept that the vast majority of punters are totally happy with the amount they gamble and the impact it has on their life, which is usually a positive one.


 Between April and December 2021 just 668 people were referred to one of the clinics due to them suffering from severe gambling addiction and that was up from 575 people in the previous period. We can guess that tripling the number of clinics will still see less than 2000 people treated. You may argue that "only" treating 2000 people when we all agree that there are probably more than 200,000 PGs in the country is just not enough, but I really do fail to see how punishing potentially millions of gamblers by making them comply with draconian Affordability Checks is going to do anything to get the number of 2,000 closer to 200,000.


 You could definitely argue that the operators already have enough information about their customers to judge which ones are potential PGs and which have no problem at all. The ones that look to obviously have no problem at all could maybe be excluded from Affordability Checks, and even if you extend them to the smaller pool of people who are just suspected PGs I still don't really understand how it helps to get the 2,000 number up. If the operator tells me that they think I'm a PG and I'm not then I'll either comply and probably be set a limit that means I can't gamble in the way I want or I'm going to find another way to gamble, I'll just find the whole process a nuisance. If the operator tells me that they think I'm a PG and I am one, I might still pass the tests and carry-on gambling but I probably still won't be going to speak to my GP for a referral to a clinic. If I'm a PG and I don't comply with the Affordability Checks then I'm very likely to continue gambling, it's just going to be harder to do so and I'll have to find a new avenue to indulge my addiction.


 I would definitely be very happy with the idea of investing way more in dealing with cases of PG as a way of getting the 2000 number higher, but to me the idea of pushing gamblers who are both PGs and also ordinary recreational punters who have no problem, to the black market is not a solution. People who treat addiction in any form will often tell you that the addict first needs to admit they have a problem and to want to seek help, often hitting rock bottom before they do so. I remain totally unconvinced that making the addict send in a huge amount of paperwork to an operator will make them want to face up to their addiction although I do concede it will push them to pursue it in a different way.


 I just totally fail to see how Affordability Checks will solve the problem we say we are trying to solve. I can see how it could easily make the lives of millions of gamblers who are part of the 99.5% worse, making it harder for them to spend their money in the way they choose, and potentially it could destroy an industry and also the sport of horse racing.


The White Paper is not written yet and we must make sure we continue to share our views in an attempt to influence the contents of it.


Do make the effort to send off a letter to your MP on the imposition of affordability checks. I've written one for you here