Why problem gambling just doesn’t add up

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In a blog post excerpt, Regulus Partners’ Dan Waugh considers the pitfalls of misaligning activity with evaluation; and asks whether manipulation of problem gambling statistics by is acceptable – even in the pursuit of noble objectives.

 

What is the point of ‘Safer Gambling’? No seriously, what precisely is the point? Amidst all the hand-wringing, virtue-signalling and self-flagellation, what exactly are we hoping to achieve and how should we measure progress?

I ask this because it seems clear to me that things in Britain (and in other markets) are far from clear.

An easy answer to this question (and one favoured by the Gambling Commission) is that our aim should be to reduce the rate of problem gambling in Great Britain. Stable reported rates of problem gambling in this country (and indeed across a large number of jurisdictions) may be somewhat remarkable given the way that markets have changed over the last two decades (and in particular the migration of expenditure towards faster, more repetitive and less supervised forms of gambling) – but this is not good enough. The rate must come down – and woe betide licensees if it does not.

So how should we achieve this goal? First, we need to define precisely what we mean by “reducing the rate of problem gambling”. Considered in a scientific sense, this means that we should be trying to reduce the scores obtained from adults in Britain when answering the PGSI and DSM-IV derived problem gambling screens (contained within NHS Health Surveys). Following this logical thread, we ought therefore to be engaged in activity that is going to result in respondents endorsing fewer items on these screens (assuming that levels of self-report accuracy remain constant).

If we can agree that this is the aim, then what might be the most efficient means of achieving this reduction? Surely, efforts to address the most commonly endorsed diagnostic criteria will give us the best bang for our buck. According to the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey (the last survey to provide sufficient detail in this area), loss-chasing is the most commonly observed criterion for problem gambling – with around 60 percent of ‘at-risk’ or ‘problem’ gamblers admitting this behaviour “sometimes”, “most of the time” or “almost always”.

On this basis, it would seem sensible to focus our energies on reducing loss-chasing – but is this wise and is this happening? One might say that the Government’s decision to reduce the maximum stake on FOBTs is consistent with this logic by truncating the scale of possible bets that a player can make on an EGM. If true, then the long delay in first making the decision and then implementing it makes the Government (in theory at least) culpable for sustaining rates of problem gambling at higher levels than they need be. However, this would appear to be an exception.

The National Responsible Gambling Strategy for example does not prioritise loss-chasing and amongst all the studies funded by GambleAware, only one of them (the 2016 Forrest and McHale analysis of slot machine play in some of Britain’s casinos) has attempted to identify this behaviour. It would appear that the broad thrust of safer gambling activity is not directly aimed at reducing reported rates of problem gambling in the most efficient fashion.

Perhaps this view is too literal – a bit narrow. After all, what we are really trying to do is achieve a reduction in harmful behaviours and problem gambling prevalence is simply an imperfect guide to this end. However, we may have an issue if our system of measurement is not aligned to the problems that we are trying to solve. How are we to measure progress accurately (and fairly) if our efforts are out of kilter with the items being evaluated?…

…We do need to spend substantially more on problem gambling treatment in this country – but do we need to make things up in order to get there? The distortion of facts (whether by the pro-gambling lobby or the gambling concern movement) has the potential to skew policy and ought to make us uncomfortable.

In the past, Britain’s gambling companies were sometimes guilty of being a touch blasé about problem gambling; but those days have gone. Given that there is now a strong (if imprecise) appreciation of the links between excessive gambling and harm, we should not need to make things appear worse than they are.

We should seek to expunge lazy analysis and attempt to gain greater clarity on the nature of the problems we are trying to solve – and how we are to measure progress. This requires an acceptance of the possibility that reported rates of problem gambling may remain stable even as levels of harm go up or down.

Stable reported rates of problem gambling do not justify industry complacence; but nor should they be used as a reason to browbeat licensees. If anything, an obsession with high-level data from prevalence surveys may serve to obfuscate our view of whether standards of consumer protection are being raised and what is happening as a result.

Gambling operators and their regulators ought to be working together to develop evaluation frameworks designed to identify what needs to be done and to assess effectiveness. In this way, we may hope to break a negative cycle of indiscriminate recrimination.


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