Make that call: Problem gambling prevalence halves from 0.6 percent to 0.3 – the lowest for over five years

Gambling Prevalence Survey industry response problem gambling
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The Commission’s latest problem gambling figures for 2020 are finally out there for public consumption and they are encouraging. Despite the caveats and standard warnings on reliance, these findings are the furthest you’ll get from a dodgy dossier. The Gambling Commission’s quarterly telephone survey points to declines in gambling activity, notably for those at risk of problem gambling, whilst highlighting the widening disparity between official research findings and the unsubstantiated public narrative.

 

It was a headline figure that didn’t hit the headlines, but more of that debate a little later.

For industry stakeholders, the stand-out statistic of the UK regulator’s survey on gambling behaviour in 2020 revolved around the direction of travel of problem gambling: downward and halving to 0.3 percent over the year.

And that trend was reflected across the other key categories of problem gambler. For low risk problem gambling: downward and a quarter fall to 2.0 percent; for moderate risk problem gambling: downward and a quarter fall to 0.9 percent.

Over the year 2019 to 2020, the telephone surveys of 4,007 adults each quarter signalled significant progress on measures aimed at restraining problem gambling prevalence. Indeed, despite the GC caveat that the 50 percent decline in problem gambling was “not a statistically significant decrease at the 95 percent level” – it still looks pretty significant in a comparative model. The lowest level of problem gambling prevalence since pre-2016, the fourth decline in five years, problem gamblers more than half the level of pre-2016, the same for those at moderate risk and just under half the level for low risk gamblers in the same time-frame.

Whichever way one looks at these specific statistics, it is difficult to find a negative narrative, let alone the current narrative in vogue: that problem gambling is spiralling out of control.

That, according to these Gambling Commission statistics is simply not the case. Whilst there are indicators that patterns need addressing – most notably, online gambling up 2.5 points to 24 percent – there were many other headline stats that reflected the downward trend.

Of the six primary categories categories featured in the telephone survey, no less than four showed a decline in gambling prevalence:

• Overall gambling participation fell to 42.0 percent (from 47.2) – the lowest in over five years

• The number of people who gambled in the last month fell to 28.2 percent (from 32.5) – the lowest in over five years

• The number of people gambling ‘in-person’ or in venues fell to 26.0 percent (from 35.1) – the lowest in over five years

• Problem gamblers (0.3 from 0.6), moderate risk (0.9 from 1.2) and low risk (2.0 from 2.7) all fell – all down to their lowest levels in over five years

There were two categories showing an increase in prevalence, one of which – online, as expected, got the engine running on the usual ‘get your act together’ pronouncements:

• The number of people gambling online rose to 23.6 percent (from 21.1) – the highest in five years

• The number of people gambling in the past month on non-lottery products rose to 17.0 (from 16.1) – the highest for five years

In the three areas on perception, probably the most dubious part of the Gambling Commission’s telephone surveys given the steer of the questions, the responses were still a mixed bag:

• The number of people who thought gambling is associated with criminal activity fell to 42.1 percent (from 42.7)

• The number of people who agreed that gambling is conducted fairly and can be trusted fell to 28.8 percent (from 29.0)

• The number of people who thought gambling was good for society rose to 15.6 percent (from 12.5) – the highest level for five years

• This was counterbalanced by the number of people who want all gambling banned which rose to 30.5 percent (from 28.6), also its highest level for over five years

Digging deeper into the survey statistics, there were other significant declines worth noting: the number of 16-24 year olds who had gambled in the last month of 2020 fell by a quarter to 31.1 percent (from 40.4), whilst 25-34-year olds also fell dramatically to 39.0 (from 48.7). The declines were equally notable when you factored out National Lottery play.

This will cause some head scratching amongst the gambling reformers who have focused very much on younger adult play, not least online where the statistics defied all predictions throughout the year.

In comparison to 2019, when online gambling really came into its own and witnessed a noticeable uptick, lockdown 2020 was a surprising mixture of play: 16-24 year olds barely shifted the dial, 25-34 year olds players literally fell to their lowest level since 2017.

At the other end of the age spectrum, however, something different was happening. The online rise came from the grey economy, the wrinklies, who played much harder than ever before – 55- 64 year olds up to 27.0 percent and the 65 pluses up to 17.4 percent.

Further evidence that there’s life in the old dog yet.

But irrespective of the age split, for those looking through the regulatory lens, the decimation of in-venue activity in favour of online play will come as no shock given the widespread and prolonged closure of venues due to Covid restrictions and national lockdown.

For operators, the hit commercially will be devastating to the land based sector. But, for those thinking 2020 was the wild west for online gambling, probably need to revisit that assumption.

The stand-out point for analysis in this area is the extent of this shift towards online – especially when assessed in the context of an aggressive and vocal narrative predicting a gambling epidemic during lockdown.

The rise of 2.5 points to 23.6 is undeniably notable – it’s an 11 percent shift on the dial, but the public lobbying campaign from political and anti-gambling groups warning of a gambling crisis during lockdown didn’t materialise. The growth rate in online play was the lowest for two years, and at a time when other gambling options were unavailable.

This surprising rate of increase, in this context, in these times, was one of the eye-popping figures in the survey. We were told by the politicians, by the anti-gambling lobbyists, and even the Commission itself, that a problem gambling Armageddon was coming.

It didn’t. But that’s not say it shouldn’t be watched like a hawk, just that hysterical rhetoric should come with the same kind of caveat the Commission attached to its survey findings – not statistically significant.

Problem and at-risk gambling

 Low risk, moderate risk and problem gamblers (according to the PGSI mini-screen)
Low risk, moderate risk and problem gamblers (according to the PGSI mini-screen)

Overall gambling participation

Proportion of respondents participating in at least one form of gambling in the past four weeks, by gender and age

In-person gambling participation

Proportion of respondents participating in at least one form of in person gambling in the past four weeks, by gender and age

Online gambling participation

Proportion of respondents participating in at least one form of online gambling in the past four weeks, by gender and age

Attitudes

Respondents agreeing with attitude statements

Gambling Business Group’s response

“…if the trend is real and genuine, then this throws a different light on the claims that more and more needs to be spent on research…”

PETER HANNIBAL CHIEF EXECUTIVE GAMBLING BUSINESS GROUP

 

Coinslot: What is the GBG’s response to the latest telephone survey findings on problem gambling numbers falling?

Peter Hannibal: There’s no doubt this news is very welcome and should be applauded by all concerned. However, in itself we should be clear that it does not constitute or confirm a new trend.

Coinslot: Are you surprised with this decline particularly given the vocal concerns expressed throughout the year by the Commission and other stakeholders that lockdown will create a significant uptick in problem gambling levels?

Peter Hannibal: The Gambling Commission need to be very considered with their press releases. Yes, they have been sending out strange warnings during the lockdown about the potential for increased problem gambling and then to the contrary, just last week they admitted that the prevalence of problem gambling might actually be going down.

In a conference that GBG took part in recently Tim Miller said to the audience that ‘it does appear that there is an emerging trend showing a decline in overall rates of problem gambling’. This is a good step on the road to actually understanding what the evidence is telling us, rather than the usual doom and gloom rhetoric we see in some of their press releases.

These results tell me that we need to better understand the relationship between disordered gambling and availability/access.

However, I need to once again stress that this latest telephone survey on it’s own is not a trend.

Coinslot: While the Commission prefers to reference its 2016 prevalence study figures, which are higher, its quarterly telephone survey regularly indicates lower levels. How important are these findings in helping to shape the gambling review?

Peter Hannibal: There is an absence of understanding as to what these numbers mean, and those demanding a ‘levy’ to fund more and more Research Education and Treatment (RET) should open their eyes to what this – and the preceding data – is and isn’t telling them.

Disordered gambling rates are statistically stable and have been throughout the period when we have spent millions and millions on RET.

And if the prevalence of problem gambling is indeed going down as Tim Miller suggests, then we need to understand why.

What impact has research had? What impact is the excellent work currently being done on ‘education’ having?

Is the new level of treatment being provided having a positive effect and to what extent?

There should be a root and branch review of the many many millions of pounds that have been spent by Gamble Aware and how effective the spend has been.

Only then can proper evidence-based decisions be made about a levy and the level of funding required.

Coinslot: Are you surprised that these findings have not been issued to the media and stakeholders by way of a Press Release and statement from the Commission – especially given the importance afforded to problem gambling prevalence in the gambling review debate?

Peter Hannibal: There are certain organisations who like to ‘talk-up’ problem gambling rates and exaggerate the length and breadth of ‘harm’ being caused to suit a public health agenda, despite disordered gambling only affecting a very small minority of those who gamble.

We do not agree with the confirmation- bias type of group think. It is noticeable how quiet they have been in response to this latest data. Can you imagine the uproar had the number moved 0.3pc the other way from 0.6pc to 0.9pc?

The Guardian, The Daily Mail and for that matter the Gambling Commission would have been beside themselves in berating the industry. No more weight should be given to this one single survey any more than another, regardless of the results.

Coinslot: How you think this trend in declining problem gambling prevalence should be reflected in legislation, regulation and your members’ players’ protection measures?

Peter Hannibal: The results of this survey could well be a consequence of the lock-down that we don’t yet fully understand.

However, if the trend that Tim Miller is talking about is real and genuine, then this throws a different light on the claims that more and more needs to be spent on research.

We need to approach this issue in exactly the same way as the rest of the review of the Gambling Act and I quote Nigel Huddleston: “The Review offers an opportunity to make sure that the Act is fit for the digital age and that we have got the balance right between protecting vulnerable people from gambling related harm, and respecting the rights of individuals to choose how they spend their money and leisure time. The Review will be evidence-led and we are keen to hear from a wide range of stakeholders in relation to the questions laid out in the Call for Evidence.”

 

The DCMS

Focusing on legislation ‘fit for the digital age”

“The focus of our ongoing Gambling Act review is to make sure the legislation is fit for the digital age.

We want to ensure that the proper protections are in place for children, vulnerable people and problem gamblers while supporting a fair and open gambling economy.

While it is encouraging that there are signs of decline in problem gambling figures over recent years, the limited scope of this survey does not provide an accurate measure of the official problem gambling rate.”

Background:

•Reducing problem gambling is an important priority and the Commission recently consulted on how it can best be tracked.

• The telephone survey is intended as a pulse check and sample sizes are small, so cannot be used as an official measure.

• Our Gambling Act Review call for evidence runs until the end of March and we will consider carefully all the evidence submitted.

Bacta’s Response

“…it is important for the Commission to put all relevant data into the public domain so that it can be scrutinised…”

JOHN WHITE CHIEF EXECUTIVE BACTA

Coinslot: What is Bacta’s response to the latest telephone survey findings on problem gambling numbers falling?

John White: Frankly, I am not surprised. Problem gambling rates have been pretty stable over the years, but there has been a definite uptick in the regulations and in the voluntary measures the gambling industry has introduced. It is therefore not surprising that this is beginning to show through in some of the figures. It is not the numbers themselves so much as the trend which is good to see.

Coinslot: Are you surprised with this decline particularly given the vocal concerns expressed throughout the year by the Commission and other stakeholders that lockdown will create a significant uptick in problem gambling levels?

John White: Not particularly. Anyone who took a good look at the data would under stand that lockdown has created a totally distorted market. Channel shift to online is obvious to see and inevitable. It is like someone who normally goes to a football match not watching it on TV.

To what extent this is permanent we will see. I suspect land-based will find they will have to work hard to bring some customers back, but on the whole I am not unduly worried about this. Unfortunately too many commentators have taken the statistics selectively to make points about whether this is something to worry about or not from a safer gambling perspective. I personally am not. I think we will see a return to a more normal situation in a few months and it is then we should look to interpret figures.

Coinslot: While the Commission prefers to reference its 2016 prevalence study figures, which are higher, its quarterly telephone survey regularly indicates lower levels. How important are these findings in helping to shape the gambling review?

John White: As I said above it is not the numbers so much as the trend. There are always weaknesses in these surveys that means the numbers are arguably not very helpful. This is especially so when the sample sizes get small and margins or error statistically rise.

Coinslot: Are you surprised that these findings have not been issued to the media and stakeholders by way of a Press Release and statement from the Commission – especially given the importance afforded to problem gambling prevalence in the gambling review debate?

John White: It is important for the Commission to put all relevant data into the public domain so that it can be scrutinised. I do not know whether the Commission has treated this data set any differently to previous iterations, and if so why.

Coinslot: How you think this trend in declining problem gambling prevalence should be reflected in legislation, regulation and your members’ players’ protection measures?

John White: If further studies confirm that we are witnessing a positive trend in the right direction then clearly the current approach which mixes regulation and voluntary industry action is having an effect. Why would you want to fix something that is not only not broken, but apparently working well.

 

The regulator’s response

Commission plays with a straight bat

SPOKESPERSON GAMBLING COMMISSION

In the three weeks since the Gambling Commission’s 2020 telephone survey statistics were issued, the findings have remained somewhat muted. At the time, the Commission was criticised for its low-key profile of the survey – no publicity, little public debate, low key positioning on its website. It was a notable absence of discourse given the generally positive data concerning problem gambling.

What is also notable, is the absence of any hiding away: the Commission had no intention of avoiding a conversation on the problem gambling statistics in the 2020 telephone survey.

For them, publication was primarily procedure over profile.

“We always publish the latest participation figures on our website,” a spokesperson told Coinslot. “We don’t press release this but it does go in the e-bulletin.”

“You’ll note that we need to be cautious with these statistics because they are not significant at the 95 percent level and that the latest participation figures do not cover all of lockdown.

“But, everything we have to say about the figures at the moment is set out in Tim Miller’s speech to the Westminster Media Forum,” they added.

True to their word, Tim Miller did reference the figures in his speech – “over the last five years it does appear that there is an emerging trend showing a decline in overall rates of problem gambling” – and the Commission has despatched a link to the stats in its e-bulletin last week.

What remains, however, is that very public conversation on problem gambling – preferably in the context of the latest figures at the public’s disposal rather than figures that date back to 2018 and collated from England sources only.

 

The BGC’s response

‘Data suggests…. new measures to tackle problem gambling are having an impact

SPOKESPERSON BETTING & GAMING COUNCIL

“Since the BGC was established, our main priority has been to drive up standards in the regulated betting and gaming industry and promote safer gambling. Our initiatives have included encouraging deposit limits, investing more in research, education and treatment, and introducing tough new rules on VIP schemes and game design.

“Although the Gambling Commission states that the fall was not statistically significant’ the data suggests that the work of the BGC and the rest of the industry to promote safer gambling and introduce new measures to tackle problem gambling are having an impact. But one problem gambler is one too many, and we are determined to keep up the momentum in the months ahead.

“We will also continue to engage with the Government’s Gambling Review to ensure a safer gambling environment for our millions of customers.”

 

The APPG

‘Problem gambling continues to be a major concern particularly with the rapid increase in online gambling’

SPOKESPERSON APPG GAMBLING RELATED HARM

The APPG for Gambling Related Harm said: “Any decline in problem gambling is to be welcomed although this fall in the latest figures is not seen too statistically significant so regulators must carefully assess the long-term trend.

Problem gambling continues to be a major concern particularly with the rapid increase in online gambling and on more addictive slot and casino style games.

The protection of gamblers and ensuring that adequate protections are in place to protect vulnerable people will continue to be our priority in the upcoming Gambling Review”.


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