In pursuit of balance

Dan Waugh
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In an excerpt of a blog post for consultancy firm Regulus Partners, Dan Waugh calls for the industry, the regulator, and the government to pursue a more balanced approach to gambling.

As any fish on a bicycle will tell you, balance is a tricky thing. In matters of gambling policy, equilibrium at times seems like a hopeless dream as debate see-saws in relation to (often myopic) vested interests. We are now at a point in the regulatory-political cycle where Britain’s gambling industry is on the back foot – the FOBT controversy refuses to go quietly; and there is mounting concern in relation to the effects on children of remote gambling marketing.

The bad news for licensees in Great Britain is that we may be some way from the bottom of this particular cycle. This is in part due to the ongoing shift in policy focus from problem gambling (a helpfully abstract concept for the pro-gambling lobby) to the more relevant – and vivid – realm of harm. As dark as the commentary on gambling is right now, the chances are that the gloom may deepen.

Some companies have invested significant resources to try to reduce the occurrence of harm experienced by their customers in relation to gambling.The starting point may have been low but never has more energy been expended by licensees on trying to make gambling safer.The problems are that the industry tends to be judged by the performance of its laggards rather than its leaders; and that the bar of expectation appears to rise at least as fast as progressive operators move to raise standards.

On the other hand, gambling concern groups may feel that there has been a long overdue correction in policy discourse (fueled in part by the remark- ably effective use of social media by certain factions). However, while the demonisation of gambling may provide some grim satisfaction to industry opponents, it is not absolutely clear that it will result in markedly better outcomes in terms of harm reduction.

It is no simple task but the aims of sustainable commercial success and harm minimisation ought to be compatible – if we choose to eschew dogma and to seek out common ground.

As we are seeing in the press on an almost daily basis, gambling is a subject that can arouse violent passions;it touches on highly personal issues of morality,religious beliefs and civil liberty. Excessive gambling can involve severe harms and it is important that we learn far more about them and use insights to minimise them rather than pretend that they aren’t there.

At the same time, the very seriousness of these issues demands a balanced and grown- up approach to policy debate. The British Government might show leadership here by dumping its costly, over-long and ultimately futile free-for-all “triennial” consultations and developing a long-term research-based programme for determining policy (one that includes consideration of benefits alongside costs).

Effective and sustainable solutions to the array of problems surrounding gambling are unlikely to be found by stubbornly occupying polar extremes.What we need right now is a willingness to explore the middle ground in pursuit of balance – and a mechanism to translate this into meaningful problem-solving.

After all, when we eschew the pursuit of balance, a fall is rarely far away.

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