Experts are warning that the UK must face up to the scale of its gambling problem with a lack of research, and industry influence, preventing proper scrutiny of a growing national habit.
Joey Barton’s 18-month suspension from football on betting-related charges, and the player’s response in which he spoke of an “explosion in sports betting”, has brought the spotlight back on to a practice that is increasingly ubiquitous within the national game, though its influence hardly ends there.
According to the most recent estimates, Britons lost £12.6bn through gambling last year, almost £300 per person, with 48% of people questioned by the Gambling Commission having admitted to gambling at least once in the previous month. The number of problem or pathological gamblers registered at 0.7%, up from 0.5% in 2015, but as many as 5.5% of those questioned identified as “at risk” gamblers, more than double the figure recorded the previous year.
This comes at a time when online or “remote” gambling, particularly betting on football matches and the “in play” events within them is exploding in popularity. Yet according to academics not nearly enough is known or understood about the effects of gambling on those who do it, while the industry and its associated technologies continue to become more sophisticated.
“What we have [with online gambling] is a new platform for providing a whole range of existing gambling services which effectively increases exposure and availability to unprecedented levels,” says Dr Sean Cowlishaw of Bristol University. “It is a profound change and vulnerable groups such as young people have the ability to gamble 24 hours a day from the comfort of their home. And we have no idea of the extent of the problem.”
“Technology advances at such a fast pace the structures that are tasked to control it don’t keep up,” says Professor Gerda Reith of the University of Glasgow, who has been working in the field of gambling harm for more than two decades. “That’s a fact of life but I think by not recognising that it’s such a problem we’re creating a problem. We’re not facing up to the potential for harm, particularly with regards to remote gambling that could lead to problems in the future.”
Cowlishaw’s most recent research interviewed 1,000 men between the ages of 18-24 and found that as many as one in four displayed signs of a gambling problem. He believes effective research is being stymied by a lack of funding and undue influence on the part of the gambling industry.
“There needs to be a recognition there are conflicts of interest that need to be actively managed,” Cowlishaw says. “Most of what we know [about gambling harm] isthrough research and evidence heavily influenced by industry. Industry funds all the research in the country through Gamble Aware. The amount of money put up is incredibly small and the industry has been able to maintain control over the topics addressed.”
Gamble Aware is the charity formerly known as the Responsible Gambling Trust, charged by the department for culture, media and sport with commissioning research into, and treatment of, gambling harm. It is funded entirely by contributions from the gambling industry (while a donation is mandated by government, the amount is not).
Cowlishaw believes this structure is problematic. “It’s implicit in the structure that the gambling industry is an acceptable partner,” he says.
“If we look at research into tobacco and, increasingly, alcohol we can see the involvement of commercial groups can impede effective policy development. When we look at proposals for dealing with problem gambling, such as self-exclusion schemes or identifying people gambling in harmful ways, they all rely on partnerships with industry.”
Self-exclusion is a process by which problem gamblers ask a bookmaker or casino to exclude them from gambling for an agreed period of time.
Professor Jim Orford is a vocal critic of the UK gambling industry. He is part of the School of Psychology at Birmingham University and the founder of the group Gambling Watch UK.
“The way I see it is there’s a collusion between the industry and government and that pulls in a lot of researchers and treatment providers who become dependent on industry financing to keep their work going,” he says. “I call this the gambling establishment. People become complicit in it.
“It’s in the interests of industry [to behave this way]. I’m not blaming them entirely, if they’re told their activities are legitimate they are going to do what businesses do.
“It’s in their interests to say it’s safe and there are a small number of people who are pathological gamblers. The truth is these things are on a continuum. For every one who is so obvious that they are pathological there are 10 who are gambling in a risky way, some of whom will be able to pull back and some who won’t.”
Five of Gamble Aware’s 13 trustees have direct links to the gambling industry. In the financial year 2015-16, it raised £7.6m in contributions from the gambling industry. Of that it spent £919,654 on research. Meanwhile £3,788,698 was given to the gambling harm treatment charity Gamcare. Of Gamcare’s 11 trustees, six have direct connections to the gambling industry.
Gamble Aware was the subject of a complaint of conflict of interest to the charities commission last year. It was cleared of the charge and found by the commission to have a suitable conflict of interest policy in place. It strongly rejects claims it is too close to the industry and say collaboration is vital.
“The government has prescribed a voluntary donation-based system to fund research, education and treatment to deliver a national responsible gambling strategy,” says the Gamble Aware chief executive, Marc Etches, in a statement given to the Guardian. “Gamble Aware has always been totally transparent about industry funding and relationships. They put us in a stronger position to help people with gambling problems and prevent gambling related harm in the first place.
“Our research relies on data and information sharing from the gambling industry and our treatment services rely on staff who work in the industry to make sure those at risk get the support they need. Given those circumstances, we believe it’s only sensible and pragmatic for us to have trustees from the industry and staff with experience of it.”