Gambling in a time of Covid-19

Covid-19 lockdown Dan Waugh Regulus Partners
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In the consultancy’s weekly Winning Post, Regulus PartnersDan Waugh looks at how the gambling industry is adapting to the shake-up caused by the COVID-19 lockdown.

 

It is a paradox of these unusual times that the shuttering of large parts of the licensed gambling industry around the world should be accompanied by widespread expressions of concern about gambling harms. Fears of harm for those gambling in lockdown have led to regulatory tightening in some jurisdictions (e.g. Latvia, Lithuania, Spain and Belgium) and calls for similar actions in others.

The situation in Great Britain is illustrative of the issues. There is widespread agreement that a population lockdown presents a number of challenges for harm prevention programmes (see Winning Post 14 March) but so far little agreement on what the correct response should be. UK-focused trade association, the Betting & Gaming Council (the ‘BGC’) has issued a ten-point plan to act as a framework for the activities of its members (or at least, those still operating) at this time.

For some, this plan does not go far enough. Parliamentarians and anti-gambling activists have called for gambling advertising (a very broad term where online is concerned) to be banned, for bonuses to be prohibited, for maximum stakes of £2 and maximum daily deposits of £50 to be imposed and for means-testing to be introduced. In this article, we consider how the balance of risk may have changed in recent weeks and – in keeping with the spirit of the times – suggest a truly collaborative approach.

The present confinement to home of large swathes of the population seems likely to have all manner of consequences for our health – some good (physical exercise is reported to be on the rise) and some not so good. Online gambling at this time may provide a welcome diversion for some; for others, excessive engagement may contribute to negative health outcomes. Critically, how operators, content providers and even media companies behave toward their customers can shape these outcomes.

We know from research that isolation, boredom and anxiety are all factors that can motivate gambling. The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010 (the last major household prevalence survey in the jurisdiction to report on such matters) reported that 20 percent of gamblers (and 30 percent of those aged 16-24 years) gambled “to escape boredom or fill time”; 22 percent did so “to relax”; 6 percent claimed that it helped them when “feeling tense” and 41 percent were motivated by “a sense of achievement” from winning. The same survey revealed that those diagnosed as ‘problem gamblers’ (DSM-IV classification) were significantly more likely than ‘non problem gamblers’ or ‘at-risk gamblers’ to endorse ‘coping factors’ (i.e. the things that all humans do to deal with the stresses of life) as reasons for gambling.

At a time when online is pretty much the only game in town for gambling (as indeed it is for large parts of general retail and leisure), these insights suggest additional reasons for ethical operators to behave with heightened caution and tighter controls. However, this is only part of the story.

While online gaming (casino, slots, bingo, poker) may be expected to thrive under lockdown, the vast majority of businesses that offer gambling (terrestrial casinos, bingo clubs, arcades, betting shops, pubs, rails bookies and online sportsbooks) are in a state of suspended animation, unable to ply their trade. Some of these businesses will not survive lockdown, others will struggle to adapt in its aftermath due to altered customer routines and the pressures of economic recession. Regardless of the present fortunes of the online casino, the fact is that – at a population level – the level of gambling participation in Britain has fallen substantially over the last month and may be slow to return.

According to the Health Survey for England 2018, 40 percent of adults in Great Britain had gambled (excluding National Lottery main draw) within the preceding 12 months. Of these, less than 3 percent stated that they participated in online gaming. The idea that more widespread use of online casino or bingo sites will offset the withdrawal from pretty much all other forms of gambling is patently absurd (we estimate a 60 percent decline in the size of the market, including the effects of substitution).


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