The problem with gambling research

Casino gaming is on the rise across much of the developed world, with governments increasingly unable to resist the allure of windfall taxes and a hefty influx of cash for the local economy. Massachusetts embraced the trend in 2011 when the state legislature voted to legalise casinos. Construction is underway for the state’s first casino at Plainridge Park, with 1,250 slot machines, harness racing and an estimated 500 new jobs.

That decision is now up for review, with a repeal referendum to be considered in the November midterms. In deciding whether to support the repeal, Massachusetts voters will need unbiased information about the social impact of gambling and its downsides. Sadly it’s going to be much harder to come by than you might think.

A compromised research agenda
Anyone looking for good quality evidence about the consequences of gambling first needs to understand how knowledge about gambling is produced. How do we know what we know? Who dictates the research agenda? How is research funded? How do we ensure that we have a sound base of impartial knowledge on which to build policy?

The answers to these questions are profoundly depressing. While in the fields of tobacco and alcohol research, academics regularly debate conflicts of interest and interrogate the strategic use of research and evidence, many gambling researchers remain dependent on industry funding. Gambling is an area largely devoid of disclosure policies, and many researchers are unreflective or outright defiant about industry influence.

Researchers, regulators and policy makers champion a “partnership model” for producing research, not so much “business as usual” as “we are all in this together.” This remarkable state of affairs contrasts markedly with other fields and produces a weak knowledge base that is unevenly influenced by industry interests.

The impact on the discipline is striking. A large proportion of spending goes on prevalence studies – counting problem gamblers in the general population. These surveys are popular with industry because they make it possible to downplay the absolute numbers of pathological gamblers, along with the percentage of the general population at risk from gambling problems, the percentage of gamblers who experience problems and the proportion of profits that come from problem gamblers (estimated at between 30 and 50%).

Prevalence studies also tend to sidestep the question of social class, thus disguising the inconvenient fact that most of the harm from gambling occurs in disadvantaged populations – those with the least capacity to absorb it.

The problem with problem gamblers
Complementing prevalence studies is a vast body of research on problem gamblers. Much of it rests on the assumption that gambling is a harmless leisure activity which makes a net contribution to public funds through either taxation or out of town tourism.

The idea that normal consumers gamble without ill-effect creates a separate category of defective consumers labelled as “problem gamblers”. According to this framework, solutions to problems with gambling are to be sought on an individual level. The alternative approach – to see gambling as an aspect of public health that may be managed by limiting the supply of particular products – is poorly supported by industry or government funding, particularly where taxes on the profits of gambling have become an important source of state income, as in Australia, Canada and, increasingly, the United States.

A minority of critical researchers continue to agitate for change – arguing that research should not be funded by the industry, that priorities should not be set by industry-influenced panels, and that research should have a public health remit.

The role of researchers
So far, these arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Senior researchers are not only content to take industry money, they are also prepared to defend these arrangements.

In December 2000 Nottingham University decided to accept a donation from British American Tobacco of £3.8 million to establish an International Centre for Corporate Responsibility. The executive editors of leading respiratory medicine journal Thorax, John Briton and Alan Knox, wrote an open letter arguing that “accepting money from the tobacco industry degrades the reputation of our University and undermines the work of all with a commitment to the teaching of medicine and the promotion of public health.”

Professor Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, resigned from his post at Nottingham, followed by a team of 20 cancer researchers, led by Professor David Thurston.

Almost 14 years later, Professor Alex Blaszczynski, editor-in-chief of the journal International Gambling Studies, and one of the most prominent gambling scholars in the world, received $1.2 million from the New South Wales clubs industry to study problem gambling in Australia. Australians have the highest gambling losses per resident adult of any country in the world and spend more on gambling than they do on alcohol or petrol.

Asked to defend this arrangement, Blaszczynski said:

Because of the nature of gambling, you do have to start looking at gaining access to data held by the industry, by patrons who are in industry venues and start looking at real life research that provides sensible, evidence-based information.

Blaszczynski’s defence is disappointing. It does not engage with the most pressing criticism: scholars in the fields of alcohol and tobacco have shown that industry funding systematically influences findings.

Further, by accepting that industry can control such access, Blaszczynski is, in effect, arguing for a monopoly on knowledge production for those who get along with the industry.

How industry funding frames the agenda
Blaszczynski’s acceptance of industry funding is not, however, exceptional and many in the field of gambling studies in the US, where funding for research is one-twentieth that of Australia and Canada, would vigorously defend his actions.

US universities enter into partnerships with individual casino companies. US academics compete for funding from the National Centre for Responsible Gaming (NCRG) which is paid for by the American Gaming Association and claims to have mandated, “stringent firewalls to separate the gaming industry’s contributions from the research it funds”. The effectiveness of these firewalls, and similar mechanisms in the UK and Australia, is debatable.

Not surprisingly, the National Centre for Responsible Gaming focuses exclusively on the disease model of gambling addiction and does not fund research with a wider social purview. Senior research director Christine Reilly recently justified this approach by saying:

To me it seems kind of silly to spend time and money on an issue that is extremely difficult to research, because you can’t count on people’s memory.“

John Warren Kindt, Professor of Business and Administration at the University of Illinois recently described NCRG output as “research designed not to hurt the gambling industry and to misdirect the debate”.

The trust deficit
Some research with a broader public health remit can be found in Australia and the US, but, as I discovered when I interviewed researchers for my study of gambling research, it is likely to be criticised and ignored. The price of independence is the loss of funding and access to data.

We depend on researchers and public health organisations to inform us about the potential harms associated with gambling, consuming alcohol or smoking. The purpose of this research is to better understand how risky activities affect communities and help us to judge what restrictions, if any, should be placed on their supply and promotion.

We cannot trust gambling research. We must therefore be sceptics. Every expert invited to give evidence to a committee on gambling should be asked, “Have you ever accepted money from the industry to conduct a piece of research, write a paper or attend a conference?”

In the absence of a culture of disclosing interests, every paper submitted as evidence should be contextualised – again we must ask “Who paid for this research?” and “How did this person gain access to data?”

It’s not much – it doesn’t produce the independent research that we so urgently need – but until the field of gambling research undergoes meaningful reform it’s the least we need to do.

In the meantime, voters such as those in Massachusetts looking for independent research, will have little choice but to roll the dice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

More than just financial loss, the social impact of gambling cannot be underestimated

The UK government is mulling a review of the regulations on fixed odds betting terminals commonly found in pubs and betting shops, in order to reduce the risk of problem gambling developing.

Based on a report from the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, this would see the maximum stake gamblers can bet on the machines reduced from £300 a minute to between £2 and £50.

Given that the Gambling Commission, the industry regulator, found 43% of people who use the machines are either problem or at-risk gamblers, some such as opposition Labour MP Tom Watson, have described this as “a squandered opportunity”. Critics believe the proposals don’t go far enough to protect people from fixed odds betting terminals, sometimes described as “the crack cocaine of gambling” due to their addictive nature.

Harmful gambling can have crippling financial and social effects on the gambler, their friends and family. In the first national study of the social impact of harmful gambling in Ireland, we examined how it affected recovering gamblers, their families and friends. We also heard stories from counsellors and those who provide services to help gamblers. Talking to people from all walks of life, from different age groups and different economic backgrounds, we found that a common theme was the devastating social effects gambling had on people’s lives.

In particular, we learned that gamblers were often exposed to gambling at an early age, for example by collecting betting proceeds for a family member, or watching adults place bets. This then led them to participate in gambling before the legal age of 18.

Gamblers reported gambling in secret, isolating themselves from family and friends to feed their addiction. As relationships deteriorated, the gambler’s behaviour would only be discovered when they were no longer able to maintain a double life, such as failing to intercept unpaid bills that had been part of trying to maintain a facade of normality. The availability of technologies, such as smartphones, means that it’s possible to conceal a secret gambling habit for years, before financial and emotional crises reach breaking point.

For young people, such technology exacerbates the potential harm of gambling. The participants in our studies frequently spoke of their concern for young people and their risk of addiction due to the availability of gambling apps and websites easily accessible from their smartphones. And while there is supposedly agreement not to offer fixed odds betting terminals in Ireland, some gamblers reported that they had got themselves into trouble using them.

Gambling as a public health issue
The social harms that stem from addictive gambling are not only for the gambler. For example, the wives of gamblers in our study reported how they could sense there was a problem, but believed they were struggling with marital issues, rather than the fallout from gambling addiction. Parents and children of gamblers reported that they could no longer trust the gambler, that they could no longer leave money unattended, and that the gambler had become someone they did not recognise or understand.

In Ireland, the legislation around regulating gambling is outdated. The regulations that might mitigate harms for the individual and for society have not been introduced, and – with support from the Irish Research Council and Ireland’s Department of Social Protection and Department of Justice and Equality – our research sought to provide the evidence base to help draw up the necessary social policies.

The government indicated its intention to move forward with legislation in early 2017, and my research and its follow-up study should inform politicians how to address the social harms of gambling – the costs of which the Institute of Public Health in Ireland has estimated to be greater than government revenue from gambling taxes.

Listen to what gamblers say they need
The participants interviewed said there is a need for open discussion about gambling and the risk it can pose to individuals and their families. Gambling addiction carries with it significant social stigma, shame and isolation – talking openly about its effects can change how we approach this issue.

Interviewees suggested a variety of measures government could take, including regulations that would protect the most vulnerable to gambling addiction, and particularly in regulating how technology now enables secretive gambling. They also identified the need for support that would help prevent and address the harmful effects of gambling addiction.

While there are addiction treatment centres around the country which include services to address harmful gambling, there is little help for those affected by a partner’s or family member’s gambling. The RISE Foundation is a notable exception, providing treatment for the families of those affected by a variety of addictions. But it is based in Dublin only, and family members may no longer have the financial resources to access treatment and support there.

There is an urgent need for a unified, transparent approach to tackling gambling’s harms in Ireland – a national strategy that encompasses public and private sector organisations, similar to those that target alcohol and drug addiction. The UK has the Gambling Commission and NHS support and advice; Ireland has nothing comparable.

Despite the lack of progress from government on the issue there have been benefits to this research: uncovering the extent of gambling’s social harms has helped to get people talking about gambling. For example, in September 2017 the European United Left/Nordic Green Left European Parliamentary Group sponsored a one day conference in Dublin to direct the spotlight on the subject and emphasise the need for updated legislation.

Within the Republic, Problem Gambling Ireland recently opened its doors to lobby against the spread of harmful gambling and to provide referral services to those affected by gambling. These may seem like small steps, but it is small steps that lead the charge for change.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

New gambling tax is moving up the agenda – here’s how it needs to work

Gambling has become a talking point in the UK Conservative Party leadership election after the health secretary Matt Hancock called for a £100m-plus annual levy on betting companies. If chosen as the next prime minister, Hancock said he intends to impose a 1% tax on these companies’ profits to pay for treatment and research into this area.

Labour have also called for this policy and a radical overhaul of the UK Gambling Act. The party has described gambling as a “hidden epidemic”, and deputy leader Tom Watson has promised that it would introduce a mandatory levy on the industry if elected to government.

It is certainly good to see this issue being addressed by frontline politicians. But imposing a levy is one thing, spending it wisely another – for the swathes of people affected by gambling harms, it is vital that we get this right.

The ripple effect

There are around 340,000 problem gamblers in the UK, and over half a million more people at moderate risk of harm from an expanding commercial landscape of products, particularly electronic gaming machines and games on online platforms.

The impacts from problem gambling spread out to families, communities and society as a whole. As well as financial problems, they include relationships breaking down, the abuse or neglect of partners and children and, in extreme cases, suicide – with all the corresponding burdens on social and health services that this involves.

Eyes down. Jordan BauerCC BY

For every one person with problems, it is estimated that five to ten other people end up being affected. Cost estimates to the UK alone range from £200m to £1.2 billion per year. The Faculty of Public Health has called this a “serious and worsening public health issue”.

In Australia, where the evidence base is more fully developed, the burden of harms on health and well-being is estimated to be comparable to alcohol misuse. From an economic perspective, it actually costs societies more if they ignore these harms than if they address them.

Several years ago in Australia’s state of Victoria, for example, total tax revenue from gambling was AU$1.6 billion (£874m) while estimated social costs were AU$7 billion, a net deficit of AU$5.4 billion.

The funding gap

In the UK, the current system of funding for research, education and treatment of gambling harms relies on voluntary industry donations to a charitable organisation, GambleAware. Too often, GambleAware struggles to meet its target contributions of just 0.1% of the money that industry retains once bets have been paid out – known as the gross gambling yield. That’s about £10m in donations for an industry whose gross gambling yield exceeds £14 billion. In this context, a £100m annual levy could clearly make an enormous difference.

Baca juga: Online gambling: children among easy prey for advertisers who face few sanctions

Yet while Hancock’s promises to fund treatment and research are welcome, he makes no mention of prevention. This is disappointing, since any attempt to reduce gambling harms must address causes and not simply consequences. That prevention is better than cure is well recognised across other areas of public health. It is also a matter of social justice, since those who suffer from gambling are disproportionately likely to be poorer people from the poorest areas.

In the UK in 2017-18, the total spending via GambleAware on prevention was less than £1.5m, which amounts to approximately 2p per capita. Compare this to a jurisdiction that treats gambling as a public health issue – in New Zealand, for instance, where harm reduction is a legislative requirement, the annual budget for prevention is more than NZ$18m (£9.3m) for a population of 4.7 million. That’s 99 times more per capita than the UK.

Prevention would involve using legislation to curtail advertising, particularly the personalised marketing that we see all over social media. We should be stricter about promotions and inducements, such as special offers and “free” bets, and stop the use of online credit.

We need tougher regulations on the design and placement of gambling products: this was done recently with high-stakes machines, but betting companies are already finding ways around these rules with different machines.

Prevention also means targeting people who are at risk. This sort of approach is under developed in gambling, so we need to invest in research to understand what works, for whom and under what circumstances. This also needs to be supported by public health campaigns to increase awareness.

Optimising the system

There are several other critical considerations. The first is that funds from a levy need to be ringfenced. Experience from other jurisdictions such as Ontario, Canada shows that if funding is not ringfenced, monies can become swallowed by national healthcare budgets. There are precedents for doing this in the UK: all monies from the sugar tax go to school sports, for instance, while from next year the majority of the Highways England budget will be ringfenced funds from vehicle road duty.

Machine learning. Igor_Koptilin

Prevention, education and treatment all need to be grounded in robust and trusted evidence. One option involves channelling funding through the infrastructure and expertise of independent academic research councils such as the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council.

Another would be to adopt the Department of Health and Social Care’s highly successful model of policy research units. This could help to produce timely evidence that keeps up with the speed at which gambling technologies are changing.

Finally, we need to overhaul the system in which commercial gambling is regulated. This would involve a new gambling act that is focused on protecting public health rather than promoting gambling as a leisure activity. This new approach is long overdue.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off