In Pursuit of Balance – Stuck in the Middle with Who?

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In Pursuit of Balance – Stuck in the Middle with Who?

In Pursuit of Balance – Stuck in the Middle with Who?

As any fish on a bicycle will tell you, balance is a tricky thing.

In matters of gambling policy, equilibrium at times seems like a hopeless dream as debate see-saws in relation to (often myopic) vested interests.

We are now at a point in the regulatory-political cycle where Britain’s gambling industry is on the back foot – the FOBT controversy refuses to go quietly; and there is mounting concern in relation to the effects on children of remote gambling marketing.

The bad news for licensees in Great Britain is that we may be some way from the bottom of this particular cycle. This is in part due to the ongoing shift in policy focus from problem gambling (a helpfully abstract concept for the pro-gambling lobby) to the more relevant – and vivid – realm of harm. As dark as the commentary on gambling is right now, the chances are that the gloom may deepen.

Some companies have invested significant resources to try to reduce the occurrence of harm experienced by their customers in relation to gambling. The starting point may have been low but never has more energy been expended by licensees on trying to make gambling safer. The problems are that the industry tends to be judged by the performance of its laggards rather than its leaders; and that the bar of expectation appears to rise at least as fast as progressive operators move to raise standards.

On the other hand, gambling concern groups may feel that there has been a long overdue correction in policy discourse (fueled in part by the remarkably effective use of social media by certain factions). However, while the demonisation of gambling may provide some grim satisfaction to industry opponents, it is not absolutely clear that it will result in markedly better outcomes in terms of harm reduction.

It is no simple task but the aims of sustainable commercial success and harm minimisation ought to be compatible – if we choose to eschew dogma and to seek out common ground.

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When Britain’s gambling industry comes to look back on the present period of regulatory discourse, we may come to see it as the Summer of Harm. The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board’s harm reporting framework is expected to be published over the course of the summer. It is unclear exactly what form this will take because harm is a tricky subject to define. As with many things in gambling, matters are easiest to judge at the extreme and we must suppose that this is where the RGSB will start.

The development of a mechanism for recording the extent of of suicides, murders, incarcerations, bankruptcies, violence and abuse linked to gambling is long overdue. Without it, we flounder hopelessly in spin and conjecture regarding negative externalities.

The information presently available to us ought to cause concern within the industry. EPIC Risk Management estimates that over the past five years there have been more than 1,000 court cases involving custodial sentences (with more than 2,000 years in aggregate sentencing) for gambling-related crimes – mainly theft and fraud. The Gambling Commission has noted in its recent Enforcement Report, the victims are often businesses and vulnerable people (including the elderly and those in care). Moreover, it seems plausible that a large element of gambling-related thefts may go unreported (particularly those that take place within the family).

Meanwhile, multi-jurisdictional research has suggested a strong relationship between problem gambling and intimate partner violence (Dowling et al estimates that more than one-third of problem gamblers may be victims and/or perpetrators of IPV).

Where the number of incidents is large (in absolute terms even if not relative to the number of people who gamble) or the harms themselves are particularly severe or vivid, the industry is likely to come under intense pressure.

In recent weeks, Parliamentarians have started to cotton onto the harm argument. Last month, the Conservative peer, Lord Chadlington asked the Department for Culture Media and Sport ,“what assessment they have made of the case for additional independent research on the number of gambling related suicides in the UK.”

Meanwhile, the former Shadow Wales Secretary, Jo Stevens (Lab, Cardiff Central) has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for swift introduction of the £2 stake maximum on gaming machines in betting shops. The motion (EDM 1440) makes pointed reference to the potentially fatal consequences of delay in “call[ing] on the Government to implement this new reduced stake of £2 immediately, to prevent any further gambling related harm or possible loss of life.”

Yet while the focus on harm is both important and overdue, there is a risk that – unleavened by broader considerations – it may skew thinking in relation to what constitutes effective and proportionate regulation. There is a number of specific risks to the attainment of balance that we consider here.

Perhaps the most obvious risk is that gambling-related harm becomes mistranslated as harm caused by gambling. Clearly, some harms do arise as a result of excessive gambling but sometimes the arrow points in the other direction. For example, the consequences of excessive gambling might in some instances lead to depression and anxiety; but in other cases, feelings of depression and anxiety may lead some people to seek escape in gambling. In the interests of sound policy we need to resist the temptation to see correlation as causation.

In addition, it can be difficult to split out what element of harm might be directly attributed to gambling – particularly where other factors are present (comorbid alcohol or substance misuse for example are commonly found in relation to pathological gambling). The question of the extent to which gambling is or is not responsible for harm should not lessen our concern; but it is germane to policy formulation.

The second consideration is that – as we migrate away from the extremes, the classification of harm becomes more subjective.

As Delfabbro & King observed last year, some classifications of harm have included relatively minor impacts, such as not being able to spend money lost gambling on other leisure pursuits: “A question, therefore, has to be raised as to whether these are genuine forms of harm. If one were to spend more money on shopping, subscribing to a new television channel, or going to sporting events, would not the same sorts of harm occur? The danger here is that if one softens the definition of harm, then it becomes possible to show that harm occurs at any point at the continuum.”

The same point could be made in relation to the way that we use prevalence survey data in this country – in particular the claim that two-and-a-half million Britons are problem gamblers or at risk of developing gambling problems. The bald statistic seems shocking but the vast majority of people included in its classification are considered “low-risk” gamblers who according to the designers of our problem gambling screens “are unlikely to have experienced any adverse consequences from gambling”.

As Delfabbro and King point out: “Gambling-related harm is usually assumed to be serious. It refers to significant disruptions to a person’s psychological, social, legal, or financial well-being… Inspection of the findings from this study shows that the percentage endorsement of serious harms by [low-risk] gamblers was usually very close to 0%.”

For too long the gambling industry used prevalence survey data to downplay the social costs of gambling; but those who – often for reasons of self-interest – use the same data in order to provoke moral outrage are just as irresponsible.

The point at which we set the threshold for harm is central to policy both in terms of how gambling is regulated but also for how we allocate resources to harm reduction. Setting the bar too low (or too high) can result in skewed regulation but also may divert funding away from tackling extreme – possibly fatal – but rare forms of harm in order to address more widespread but significantly less severe costs.

For largely political reasons, we are about to embark on a £5m to £7m a year population-wide ‘safer gambling’ campaign. This figure dwarfs what we spend on providing support and treatment to those experiencing severe harm. For some, getting the balance wrong on our research, education and treatment spending priorities really could be a matter of life and death.

To achieve balance we cannot look solely at the deficit ledger but must also recognise that gambling involves a range of psychosocial benefits. The Budd Report of 2001 recommended that the positive effects of gambling ought to be studied alongside the negatives; yet we are perhaps further away than ever from realising this. The RGSB has indicated a need to step up funding for research into harm but it seems doubtful that any of this will be expended on exploring the dimensions of gambling and positive well-being.

Researchers in this country admit that they would feel intimidated from approaching the subject for fear of the vitriol that would inevitably come their way. At the same time, funding for such research would need to be provided by the industry and this for many would invalidate the findings.

We might hope that the DCMS or Gambling Commission would wish to explore the consumer benefits of gambling. As we have written before, an exclusive focus on the costs of gambling fails by definition to “put the customer at the heart” of policy-making. It seems plausible that thinking about how the gambling industry can do more good (rather than simply less harm) may result in positive outcomes; but there are few signs that the Government has any appetite for this.

The challenge for operators is therefore to focus on how it can generate greater consumer advocacy. Virtue alone is unlikely to move gambling out of its current negative orbit for the simple reason that no level of harm is ever going to be acceptable without an appreciation of benefits. Alcohol for example involves substantially greater harms than gambling but benefits from significantly higher advocacy from those who enjoy a drink.

The attainment of balance also involves a willingness to see the world from different perspectives and a readiness to make sacrifices (and not simply offer token gestures). Dogma is the enemy of progress towards harm reduction – and this is as true of the anti-gambling lobby as it is of the industry. There is nothing wrong with having strong views but the ability to hold them lightly is one of the true marks of wisdom.

Intolerance is unhelpful and there ought to be no room for personal abuse. It may be fun to paint gambling executives as pantomime villains but those who depict the industry as unremittingly evil are not exercising rational judgement. The disparagement (by both pro and anti-gambling lobbyists) of those who have experienced gambling-related harm is particularly vile.

Vested interest is not the exclusive preserve of the gambling executive. As Professor Peter Collins observes in his book, ‘Gambling and the Public Interest’, “Those who research, those who treat and those who regulate problem gambling also often have a financial interest – as well as an ideological interest – in making immoderate claims about how widespread and harmful problem gambling is”.

We must respect the wishes of those individuals and organizations who refuse on a point of principle to engage constructively with gambling operators – even if we may question the effectiveness of such unblinking cynicism (in the same way we might for those in industry who refuse to meet with their critics).

As Tim Miller of Great Britain’s Gambling Commission’s observed this week in his speech at the World Gaming Executive Summit: “We need to create the environment where all those with a part to play can play it fully. Where a broad coalition can work together to prevent gambling related harms and can more effectively measure the success they are having.”

Miller sees international dimensions to this approach and rightly points out that commercial opportunities for Britain’s licensees in emerging markets (most notably sports betting in the US) demand greater cross-jurisdictional coordination.

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As we are seeing in the press on an almost daily basis, gambling is a subject that can arouse violent passions; it touches on highly personal issues of morality, religious beliefs and civil liberty. Excessive gambling can involve severe harms and it is important that we learn far more about them and use insights to minimise them rather than pretend that they aren’t there.

At the same time, the very seriousness of these issues demands a balanced and grown-up approach to policy debate. The British Government might show leadership here by dumping its costly, over-long and ultimately futile free-for-all “triennial” consultations and developing a long-term research-based programme for determining policy (one that includes consideration of benefits alongside costs).

Effective and sustainable solutions to the array of problems surrounding gambling are unlikely to be found by stubbornly occupying polar extremes. What we need right now is a willingness to explore the middle ground in pursuit of balance – and a mechanism to translate this into meaningful problem-solving.

After all, when we eschew the pursuit of balance, a fall is rarely far away.