The Guardian view on regulating gambling: don’t leave it to chance

Editorial | Opinion The record fine levied on 888, an online gambling company, today, is a sign that Britain has a gambling problem. A technical failure meant that 7,000 customers...

Editorial | Opinion

The record fine levied on 888, an online gambling company, today, is a sign that Britain has a gambling problem. A technical failure meant that 7,000 customers who had chosen to bar themselves from the firm’s betting terminals were still able to gamble. The public is starting to catch on. Sixty-nine per cent think betting is dangerous for family life; 78% fear there are too many opportunities to do it. And those who think the practice should be discouraged rose from 36% in 2010 to 55% in 2016.

A government review into the industry is due in October. It is likely to focus on, among other things, the rise of fixed-odds betting terminals, machines where users can gamble up to £100 every 20 seconds.

These reforms are welcome. The country has more than 400,000 problem gamblers – a figure that has grown by a third in three years. These are people who suffer from an urge to gamble continuously, despite risks to jobs and families. Many end up homeless, or in jail. Gambling may not corrode livers or clog lungs, but it is no less dangerous than other types of compulsion. The National Council on Problem Gambling has estimated that one in five problem gamblers attempt to kill themselves, around twice the rate of other addictions. Some 80%, they say, think about suicide. There is evidence that gambling is more addictive than alcohol or drugs, too: some 90% of recovering gamblers relapse, higher than for other addictions. A recent Institute for Public Policy Research report found that gambling addiction – burdening as it does mental health services, the police, and the welfare system – costs the UK up to £1.6bn a year.

But changes in technology and advertising have made gambling easier and more attractive. Regulation struggles to keep pace. Those denied high-speed gambling at high-street betting terminals can always find it online. Those who ban themselves from one company can always turn up at another in a moment of weakness.

And the problem goes deeper than this. The number of gambling adverts on TV has increased fifteenfold over a decade, to 1.4m in 2014. Once gamblers needed to hear the money jingling in a betting shop for their habit to be triggered; now images follow them around social media and on TV, and to sports events. In a recent survey more than 3 million adults had bet on a football match in the last four weeks. Of the 20 Premier League teams, nine currently have shirts sponsored by a gambling company.

These adverts – limited by standards the gambling industry invented itself – tend to glamorise the sport. Where once the uber-masculine Marlboro man tempted men to buy cigarettes, betting companies bombard potential punters with images of James Bond-like men and macho slogans such as “once is lucky, twice is talent”. Others, drawing on the sports connection, recruit laddish peer pressure to hook punters in. Ladbrokes urges prospective customers to “live the Ladbrokes life”, showing betting as a banterous experience with a group of tearaway mates.

Looser laws have made matters worse for gambling addicts. Gambling has travelled a long road since it was legalised in the 1960s. Since then, the industry has grown sharply, doing particularly well under New Labour, which deregulated it further. In 2003, parliament held a debate over allowing supercasinos – the then prime minster Tony Blair saw them as the only salvation for Britain’s failing seaside resorts and former industrial cities (the idea was finally killed off by Gordon Brown). Now with the growth of internet gambling it is voracious: punters lost £13.8bn last year, and there are some 170,000 gaming machines. It is time to rein it in.

There are plenty of places to start, and reforms to the alcohol and tobacco industries provide a useful blueprint. No longer should the gambling industry be allowed to regulate itself. A large-scale public health campaign should warn the public of the dangers of gambling, and advertising should be dampened. Those wanting to protect themselves from their gambling problem should be able to do so without applying to individual companies – multi-operator exclusion should be an option. And greater efforts should be made to protect children: a recent report found 450,000 11-to 15-year-oldshad gambled in the last week.

Making the necessary changes will be painful. The gambling industry is a significant part of Britain’s leisure industry – it employs over 100,000 people and in 2015 contributed £10.3bn to the economy. But the costs to public health cannot be ignored.

Source: The Guardian