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The enormously profitable gambling industry has been on notice for some time. Amid mounting evidence of the severe problems that its products can cause, with hundreds of gambling-linked suicides every year, the government launched a review of current laws in 2020. A white paper tabling its proposals for change is expected soon. Industry lobbyists have spent the intervening period doing all that they can to soften the expected blows to their business model, while campaigners, including bereaved families, have argued for a regulatory framework that takes human frailty into account. Evidence suggests it is the latter who have the public’s support, with one survey showing that three-quarters of adults favour restrictions on gambling adverts.
A report from the Social Market Foundation co-authored by Prof Henrietta Bowden-Jones, the director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, should stiffen reformers’ resolve. It makes the case for a new board funded by a statutory industry levy, to oversee national efforts to reduce gambling-related harm. Currently, voluntary contributions from gambling businesses – which between them are responsible for around £11bn of annual losses by gamblers – are funnelled through a charity, GambleAware. But this activity is poorly integrated with other NHS services, and suffers from a lack of research and evaluation.
Last month, the NHS severed links with GambleAware, citing concerns about the charity’s independence, while affirming its commitment to NHS addiction services. Demand for these rose sharply last year, with a 16.2% increase (from 575 to 668 referrals) in the number of people seeking help in England for severe gambling issues. Company contributions should be in proportion to the harm that their activities cause, and there is work to be done on how exactly the levy would work. But the argument that it should be compulsory, not voluntary, is correct. In fact, this should have happened years ago.
The remit of addiction work must also be broadened to encompass prevention. It is not enough to offer support to those individuals who are most severely harmed. The government estimates that while the vast majority of England’s 24.5 million gamblers do not have a problem (many restrict their gambling to the national lottery), 0.5% of them do. A testing regime for new products, and a cap on the amount that can be staked online, would restrict businesses’ ability to manipulate their customers into taking unhealthy risks. There is plentiful evidence, including in a new book by the Guardian’s Rob Davies, that companies have grown more sophisticated in their efforts to maximise profits by exploiting cognitive biases and disguising losses as wins. Between 2020 and 2021, the firms handed over £225,000 in “wages and freebies” to MPs. Since 2020, a former Labour MP Michael Dugher has been a prominent industry lobbyist.
Denise Coates, the billionaire owner of Bet365, pays more UK taxes than anyone else. Inevitably, such wealth brings power. By contrast, there can be few people more desperately powerless than the people – often young men – who have gambled too much and found themselves in debt, obsessed and afraid. It is the government’s duty to protect both these adults and children, who Prof Bowden-Jones says have been placed at risk by “too much exposure to gambling” since the advent of ubiquitous online and sports advertising and smartphone access to 24/7 betting apps. MPs must call time on the claim that gambling is harmless fun.