“Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world’s ills, and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all.” John W. Gardener
One of the less-discussed benefits of a regulated gambling industry is its role as a weather-bell for the rise of intolerance. Never too far from controversy of one kind or another, gaming and betting can become painfully exposed in times of political extremism. With populism on the march and the policy debate becoming progressively polarised, we explore the implications for gambling of growing political extremism; and consider what increasingly visible attempts to marginalise the activity tell us about the threat to free societies.
For a number of years, a cultural revolution has been underway in Great Britain, Australia and a number of other jurisdictions in western Europe. This broad movement, which is cross-border, coordinated, well-resourced and increasingly influential perceives the liberalism of the late 20th century as an aberration in a long history of moral distaste for gambling – and seeks to return the activity to the margins of society. Its rise has been fuelled by legitimate concerns about the way that the industry is developing (in particular, the convergence of traditional modes of gambling with 21st century technology) and abetted by instances of negligence (or worse) from some within the industry. It is thus grounded in mainstream thinking about gambling-related harm, harm reduction and the role of regulation – but leans in a more radical, prohibitionist direction. What is concerning about this movement is not that it seeks a dramatic curtailment of legal gambling; but that it appears to demand absolute hegemony.
In this essay, we consider the threat this movement poses to regulated gambling and consumer choice; and we explore its development across three domains:
infiltration of key organisations of power and influence;
attempts to exclude, marginalise and silence dissenters.
In terms of regulation and public policy, perhaps the most important development of recent times has been the reframing of how we consider the chief negative externalities of gambling. Twenty years ago, the late Bill Eadington described problem gambling as the “achilles heel of the legal gambling industry”. Professor Eadington rightly observed that failure to deal meaningfully with the potentially severe consequences of excessive gambling made the industry vulnerable to societal agitation and political intervention. It was an insight that too few operators in too few jurisdictions really grasped at the time.
This failure was likely due in part to the fact that problem gambling – or gambling disorder – is a relatively niche psychiatric condition, affecting a small minority of adults and a somewhat larger minority of gamblers. It is also rather abstract – two people with gambling disorder can be given exactly the same diagnostic score and classification yet exhibit completely different behaviours (and experience entirely different symptoms and harms). Moreover, the problem of problem gambling appears to have been diminishing in purely statistical terms with declining rates of gambling disorder observed across a number of developed markets.
In the past, this presented the pro-gambling lobby with an opportunity to diminish the importance of the issue or to make spurious arguments about the problem residing with the individual rather than the product.
In recent times however, we have started to think differently about the costs of betting and gaming – moving from the abstract of problem gambling to the more vivid realm of actual harm. This makes sense. When weighing the costs and benefits of any activity, we are more likely to be able to make good decisions if we can ground our thinking in measurable and ‘real world’ effects.
The difficulty is that ‘harm’ is often defined in fairly loose and subjective terms – and causation is hard to discern. It is thus possible to establish a very broad scope of what is deemed harmful and to set low qualifying thresholds. It brings into play the valid consideration that harm may not be restricted to the individual who gambles – families, friends, employers and others in the community may also be affected. In this way, it becomes possible to argue that a significant proportion of the population is harmed by gambling. Taken together, these factors create an opportunity for critics to amplify the costs.
This process is illustrated through the development of the Short Gambling Harms Screen (the ‘SGHS’), designed to help researchers measure harms from gambling rather than simple rates of gambling disorder. The SGHS contains questions such as whether gambling has ever resulted in a reduction of spending money or less money to spend on other forms of recreation; whether it has ever prompted feelings of regret; and whether it has ever led to the individual spending less time with loved ones.
In setting low and arguably endogenous criteria for harm, the SGHS facilitates the idea that there is no safe level of gambling; no harmless flutter. Anyone who gambles is ‘harmed’ in some way or other (as gambling inevitably consumes time and money); and because third-parties may be harmed in consequence, it becomes possible to claim that gambling is an activity from which the population as a whole requires protection.
Researchers have used the SGHS to try to quantify the ‘burden of harm’ (using assessments of diminished life expectancy) and then compared results to other health matters, such as alcohol consumption. In 2017, Browne et al. estimated that gambling-related harm in the Australian state of Victoria, “was associated with 101,675 years of life lost” (a calculation based not on actual mortality but on subjective assessments of how many years an individual would be prepared to give up in return for an absence of alleged harms). This quantum of harm was around two-thirds of the level associated with the alcoholic drinks industry in Victoria.
What is interesting is that in the Victorian study, more than half of the ‘lost years’ were attributed to ‘low risk’ gamblers and only 15% to problem gamblers. A subsequent study in Tasmania went further by suggesting that the greatest quantum of harm is to be found amongst non-problem gamblers. These claims are the based upon the multiplication of very low levels of so-called ‘harm’ by the large numbers of recreational (non-problem) gamblers in the population.
As the Australian researchers, Paul Delfabbro and Daniel King have pointed out in a series of journal papers, it is an approach that – while not without merit – fails to differentiate between harm and opportunity cost. It also ignores the benefits that consumers receive from being permitted to gamble (and ignores the ‘harms’ that they might experience if they shifted their expenditure to other pastimes). Significantly, there is no corresponding Short Gambling Benefits Screen to explore whether people have ever experienced mental stimulation from gambling, whether they have had fun with friends while gambling or whether they have ever emerged with increased money to spend on other forms of recreation (like a celebratory dinner).
The danger is that locating the greatest quantum of harm in ‘non-problem’ or ‘low-risk’ gamblers may lead to a diversion of resources from those genuinely in need of help towards population-wide programmes (such as high-profile and possibly ineffectual public health campaigns). When advertising executives receive a larger share of harm prevention funds than treatment providers (as has happened recently in at least one jurisdiction), it may be a sign that something has gone awry.
It may well be the case that gambling harm is a population-wide issue. However, this assertion remains a matter of debate within the scientific community; and many highly experienced researchers and clinicians simply do not support it. Despite this, the doctrine of gambling as an inherently harmful activity is displacing (within certain regulatory and political circles) the late 20th century conceptualisation of gambling as a legitimate – albeit risky – pastime for adults.
This repositioning of gambling as the ‘new tobacco’ is taking place not as the result of any formal, impartial and public review but rather by a process of influence and infiltration, bound up with the emerging dominance of ‘public health’ thinking in gambling policy.
In Britain, a number of public health organisations are now openly seeking to influence gambling policy; while a succession of public health experts has been appointed to positions of regulatory influence. Unsurprisingly, the language of public health now litters the regulatory and political discourse and its views are often cited as unarguable facts. As Jim Orford wrote in 2017, “if powerful interests can achieve acceptance of the discourse which supports their position, their power is even better secured”. Ironically, Professor Orford was referring to what he perceived as industry attempts to influence regulatory policy. These days, the words seem to fit more closely with the approach of those who seek to restrict or outlaw gambling.
Industry critics have done a remarkable job in recruiting the mass media to their cause. In a recent paper from the Australian academic and lobbyist, Dr Angela Rintoul, a gambling concern activist from Britain described his approach to campaigning:
“… we … built very good relationships with journalists and over a number of years. At each newspaper we had a journalist that we were working very closely with who had clout… eventually newspapers were running campaigns that were aligned to our objectives… building that consensus [across media outlets], using that coverage to leverage support from MPs and parliament.”
Depicting the industry as a powerful lobbying force is all part of the ‘new tobacco’ narrative; but in reality it is gambling’s critics who now dominate media and political discourse (the activist later describes how he managed to turn the industry’s own political allies against it through the exploitation of inter-sector rivalry and factionalism). If a gambling executive had made similar comments about influencing press or politicians, it would have been held up as an example of dirty tricks; for opponents, it is fair game.
The polarisation of politics makes fertile ground for an anti-gambling doctrine that appeals to both Marxist ideology and right-wing moralism. In a number of jurisdictions, regulatory tightening has been facilitated by the rise to influence of populist parties (the right-wing Five Star Movement in Italy and the left-wing Unidas Podemos in Spain for example) and high-profile political figures (such as Iain Duncan Smith from Britain’s European Research Group). Gambling is a natural area of interest for those who seek to exert control over their fellow citizens.
Meanwhile, social media has handed a megaphone to a small group of activists who have realised that people in positions of regulatory-political authority are apt to be sensitive to angry invective. It is one of the more disappointing aspects of the policy debate that many of those who campaign about gambling as a mental health issue appear to see cyber-bullying as a legitimate tactic for prosecuting their aims.
In academic research we have also been witnessing an important shift. In times past, gambling research was a melting pot of bright people from different disciplines and different philosophies. Yet in Britain and in other parts of Europe, diversity of academic outlook is shrinking. Some researchers (judging by their Twitter accounts) seem ideologically motivated to prosecute a campaign against an industry they neither understand nor like; some may find that the public health agenda offers a less bumpy route to funding and publication; while others have confessed to fears of intimidation if they adopt more balanced positions.
Hardly any research is conducted into the benefits of gambling (in contravention of the principles of public health and basic common sense) and those researchers who do accept industry funding (for whatever purpose) are vilified.
Activists perceive gambling industry involvement in research as directly analogous to ‘Big Tobacco’s’ efforts to subvert studies on the health effects of cigarettes. However, a recent study of more than 700 research papers by Shaffer at al. (2019) found no statistically significant difference in objectivity between industry funded and so-called ‘independent’ journal papers. The study did, however, find that industry-sponsored papers were far more likely to include disclosures on sources of funding and conflicts of interest; suggesting that – at the mean – industry-funded research may be more transparent than so-called ‘independent’ studies.
Where research does not support the view of a ‘public health emergency’ (particularly large-scale household surveys showing stable or declining rates of problem gambling), it is often simply ignored. In Britain, it has become fashionable to claim that there has been no national prevalence survey since 2010; yet gambling and problem gambling prevalence are now assessed more frequently than ever before (and using far greater sample sizes) via national Health Surveys. We should always be wary when making comparisons between different survey instruments (particularly where methodological variances or framing effects exist) but inconvenience of findings is not a valid basis for selective exclusion.
We are seeing a decline in the diversity and quality of research at a time when advances in science, increased funding and unprecedented access to gambling data ought to be driving the opposite outcome. Meanwhile, potentially valuable research from within the industry based upon actual customers and actual gambling behaviour is almost invisible, presumably because operators are wary of a hostile reception.
3. Suppressing dissent
One way to establish primacy of view (at least for a while) is to prevent others from speaking. So it is that a concerted and explicit effort is now being made to exclude the gambling industry – and indeed anyone who may have a dissenting point of view – from debate on its future. For example, Dr Rintoul has written of the need to exclude “the influence of the gambling industry from policy development and research”. Last month, a well-known gambling researcher proudly trumpeted her success in having an invitation withdrawn for a speaker at a health conference in Portugal on the grounds that he worked for the tobacco firm, Philip Morris. A couple of weeks later, the same researcher asked (on Twitter) whether representatives of the gambling industry would be permitted to attend the annual GambleAware conference in London (an event funded by British licensees). This seems unlikely to have been an innocent question. The practice of ‘no-platforming’ has its origins in the prevention of hate-speech but is now being used more widely to suppress debate and diversity.
In September, the charity Samaritans was attacked for agreeing to allow the gambling company Flutter to raise funds for it (it is not clear whether critics were offering to put their own hands in their pockets to make up the shortfall). A few weeks later, the charity for homeless people, Emmaus turning down £14,000 raised for it by the prize draw company Raffle House, apparently on the basis that the money was generated through gambling. Both charities exercised their right to decide where to seek funds; but in only one case was this choice respected by those outside the charity.
Britain’s Gambling Commission and the charity GambleAware have apparently banned the term ‘responsible gambling’; while a senior figure in the Church of England (an organisation with a long history of banning things) has suggested that ‘problem gambling’ should be expunged from the psychiatric lexicon on the grounds that it is not sufficiently hard-hitting. Earlier this year, British Airways was forced by a group of MPs to withdraw a TV commercial for holidays in Las Vegas. Each instance is underpinned by valid concerns – in 2014, we wrote about the way ‘responsible gambling’ was being misused; in its most recent diagnostic manual, the American Psychiatric Association has substituted ‘gambling disorder’ for ‘problem gambling’. However, history teaches us that censorship (which includes the banning of language and creative expression) is not something to be advocated lightly.
Then there is the bullying – particularly but not exclusively on social media – of those who hold alternative points of view. Industry executives are obvious targets but more troubling are the attacks on those who choose to work with gambling companies in the interests of harm prevention – including many with personal histories of gambling disorder. Last month, a young man who has experienced genuine harm in relation to gambling found himself being attacked on social media by campaigners, MPs and “even representatives of the Gambling Commission” for agreeing to work on harm prevention with the gambling firm, GVC. The use of intimidation extends beyond the gambling debate – as illustrated this week by the resignation of a number of British MPs. Those in positions of political or moral leadership should stamp out rather than encourage such practices.
A prohibitionist agenda?
One of the demands from critics of Britain’s industry is that ministerial responsibility for gambling should be transferred from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the Department of Health and Social Care. This is a natural corollary to the view that gambling is a population-level health issue; it is also one of the clearest signals of the emergence of a prohibitionist agenda. Once framed as a health issue under the auspices of the Department of Health, it is difficult to see how legislation and regulation can move in anything other than a restrictive direction – regardless of context or any considerations of balance.
The stopping points on the road to prohibition have been well-flagged and include greater restrictions on the visibility of gambling (tighter advertising and promotional regulation or outright bans); more limited access and availability (national ID schemes, means testing, mandatory play limits and curfews); changes to structural features of games (including a requirement that sensory cues should highlight losses rather than wins); tougher legal sanctions for licensing failure and greater opportunities for legal redress; and an increase in the minimum age for legal gambling to 21-years (in jurisdictions where it is currently 18-years). Such proposals tend to be grounded in entirely reasonable concerns. It is the failure of industry to address those concerns meaningfully that invites radical solutions.
By far the most alarming element of the agenda is aimed not at industry but at consumers – the ambition among some activists and researchers to make gambling a “socially unacceptable” activity (one of a number of manufactured parallels with tobacco). While overtly positioned as a response to health concerns, there is a whiff of moralism here that harks back to notionally bygone conceptions of gambling as a sinful activity.
Putting the customer at the heart
So how should the industry respond? The effort and resource expended by the gambling industry on tackling harm is now considerable both in absolute terms and in relation to five years ago. Progress needs to be sustained and effectiveness sharpened.
However, minimising harm is a complex challenge and requires thorough examination and detailed thinking. There is still a tendency within some industry participants towards the grand gesture – and this creates the idea that the intention is to appease critics rather than to address problems.
There is a danger that in attempting to mollify those dogmatically opposed to gambling, the support of allies (for example other members of the industry or even consumers) may be forfeited. In particular, operators should resist the temptation to commit grand gestures in the name of social responsibility – and then demand that all others follow suit. Almost all of the regulatory and fiscal reverses suffered by different parts of Britain’s industry over the last five years have been advocated by supposed peers. Greater industry cohesion depends on learning this lesson fast.
Operators should show remorse (and take corrective action) where they get things wrong but they should not feel the need to apologise for their existence. The reason that we have gambling companies is because our citizens want them – or as the economist and neuroscientist, Don Ross wrote: “Gambling industries exist partly as solutions to coordination problems, providing focal points where people who want to bet on things can find opportunities to bet and other people to bet against. People value having pre-established structured common focal points for gambling as a social activity.”
Unlike tobacco, the consumer need that operators provide appears to be a fundamentally human one. In 1999, Jan McMillen, the former director of the Australian Centre for Gambling Research observed that: “Gambling is one of the few social activities that occurs in nearly all cultures and in every period of time: in this respect it can be said to be virtually a universal phenomenon in human societies.”
Whisper it softly but gambling can even be a positive and healthy activity for adults. The multi-disciplinary academic, Peter Collins captured this well when he wrote: “It may in fact be the case that people who drink in moderation, have temperate sex lives, and even enjoy the occasional game of chance have lives that are not only more enviable but also more admirable than those who eschew all such pleasures and play”. In Canada, the Positive Play school founded by Richard Wood seeks to understand how healthy engagement with gambling may be promoted – a sharp contrast with those who perceive gambling as inherently and exclusively harmful.
Reminding policy-makers of the consumer benefits from gambling is critical if we are to restore any semblance of balance to the debate. In addition to preventing harm, operators (particularly those in the remote sector) must do more to earn the trust and appreciation of their consumers, to generate greater consumer enjoyment and thereby consumer advocacy. The case for the defence of the gambling industry is not a strong one; the case for consumer sovereignty, consumer surplus and consumer autonomy is.
Harm minimisation and consumer enjoyment are two sides of the same coin. As a US casino executive observed earlier this year, harm prevention ought to be an integral part of customer service excellence (focused on well-being); not a separate, ghettoised discipline. Rising to the challenge of championing the best interests of the consumer at large – in terms of both fun and safety – is the beach on which operators must fight.
In a large number of markets, the rise of intolerance poses a major threat to licensed gambling. At the same time, moves to emasculate or ban gambling – and in particular to impose moral values – ought to be a concern for society more widely. As the journalist and broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer wrote in the Independent last year: “We live in a free country where people are allowed to make dumb decisions every day, whether it’s about their job, their relationships or even their health. Some of us drink, some of us smoke, some of us gorge ourselves on cake and, yes, some of us gamble. So be careful what you wish for: your own personal vice might be next.”