21 March, 2022

Are we there yet?

Lee Richardson MBA, regular Gambling Insider contributor, CEO of Gaming Economics and Co-Founder of the Big Betting Balagan, asks where we are in the drive towards responsible gambling.

The term responsible gambling (RG) was – according to a recent Australian state government paper analysing the topic – first coined about 30 years ago, as a means of describing both gambling behaviours (as those demonstrated by consumers) and gambling environments (as that facilitated by policymakers, regulators and operators).

It seems probable it was itself borrowed from the alcohol industry, and its policy discussions concerning consumption patterns, where the concept of ‘responsible drinking’ had been around since the early 1980s.

Whatever its lineage, we’ve been aware of the RG term for at least a generation; yet there’s evidence the industry still struggles with its very definition, and subsequent implementation and effectiveness.

By way of evidence, in a 2004 paper published by the University of Las Vegas (Challenges In Responsible Provision of Gambling: Questions of Efficacy, Effectiveness and Efficiency), academics Hing and Mackeller argued that there was “a lack of agreement over the facts (efficacy), a lack of agreement over goals (effectiveness) and a lack of agreement over the means to achieve those goals (efficiency).” Almost 20 years on,is that still the case? Sadly, I fear it is.

More recently, in a well-researched background paper (Responsible Gambling; Past, Present and Future) published just five years ago by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation in Australia, one key conclusion was “…it may (still) need to be clearly articulated that the focus of responsible gambling is reducing gambling harm, rather than reducing or preventing problem gambling.”

Such long-standing doubt about definitions, descriptions and scope continue to dog debate and hinder collective RG best-practice around the globe.

In the UK, where the industry awaits the publication of a (now overdue) White Paper on the UK government’s Review of the Gambling Act 2005 later this spring, RG has been a common point of discussion, debate – and disagreement – for just about all involved in the advance consultation; whether within the industry itself, the media, critics or parliamentarians.

The latest skirmish appears to be the so-called ‘single customer view’ (SCV) which, ostensibly, will deliver the industry with a holistic and detailed perspective of an individual consumer’s gambling activity and behaviour; and thus provide a better picture of potential indicators of harm from that gambling.

Some say it’s a vital part of the RG landscape, others claim it’s fraught with data protection and privacy issues. Nonetheless, after the UK ICO gave its blessing late last year, new Gambling Minister Chris Philp called on the industry to act, saying: “Operators must now come together quickly to deliver a meaningful solution”

In quick response, industry body the Betting and Gaming Council has just invested £1m ($1.3m) and selected self-exclusion organisation GamStop to deliver its first workable SCV application, for delivery before the end of March 2022. By this summer, the industry should then be in a position to properly evaluate the pros and cons of such a new RG tool, and the scale of benefits for consumers be better quantified.

On the point of backing such initiatives, the UK industry now appears to be embroiled in a spat over how, and from whom, research, education and treatment (RET) for gambling-related harm should best be funded, with the NHS due to stop accepting ‘industry money’ in 2022.

Health services in England received £1.2m last year to help specialist gambling addiction clinics organised by GambleAware – a charity set up to reduce gambling harms – itself largely funded from industry donations. It insists it is fully independent, with the UK gambling industry having“absolutely no influence” over its activity.

However, in late January 2022, Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, said “NHS clinicians have been asking, for a long time…for independence of funding from industry”.

Frankly, it’s difficult to know if this development brings a mandatory RET-funding operator levy closer in the awaited White Paper, or pushes it further away. Either way, the demand for more funding for RET
seems assured, even if the mechanism might now be murkier.

Despite its critics, the UK gambling industry, particularly online, has much to look back on with confidence. It satisfies millions of consumers on a daily basis, is of significant benefit to the UK economy, has created thousands of high-value, skilled jobs and has developed innovative products now widely adopted throughout the rest of the gambling world. With a once-in-a-generation chance,  through a proportionate, evidence-led government review, it has a golden opportunity to also lead the world in implementing evidence-based, sustainable and effective responsible gambling. Let’s hope it gets the chance to do so.