The Gambling Commission has often been criticised for using vague terminology, open to multiple interpretations. But as the watchdogs attention shifts from “problem gambling” to “harm”, the UK industry may come to pine for a far less explicit era.
When Britain’s gambling industry comes to look back on the present period of regulatory discourse, we may come to see it as the Summer of Harm,” writes Regulus Partners, in a blog post titled: As any fish on a bicycle will tell you, balance is a tricky thing.
This ominous turning point for the UK industry is an “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,” the analysts write.
“As dark as the commentary on gambling is right now, the chances are that the gloom may deepen.“
The Gambling Commission’s annual report offers some practical clues to the storm that brews.
Not only does the regulator’s chairman, Bill Moyes’, mention the word “harm” ten times in his short opening statement (“harm” is referred to 34 times overall; three times higher than the GC annual report last year) but the buzzword is directed at a range of policy outcomes – far beyond the more individual connotations of “problem gambling.”
“Gambling-related harm causes damage to individuals, families, communities and society more generally. It is associated with a range of mental health and social problems, including crime,” says Moyes.
While the National Responsible Gambling Strategy has set “clear and relevant objectives” to tackle them, he adds, “progress with implementation remains too slow.”
“There can be no doubt that it would be much better for the industry, for gamblers and for the country if the prevention of harm were given a higher priority. This is our objective.”
What this means in terms of actual policy is, mostly, to be confirmed. But as Moyes states the Commission will be refining its “understanding of the scale and nature of the problems that gambling can cause” while assessing whether its own framework is comprehensive enough to address this expanded focus.
Licensing expert David Clifton, and partner at Clifton Davies consultancy firm, notes the near limitless scope of enquiry that this new terminology suggests. And the deeper the rabbit hole goes, he says, the more firms will be required to understand about how their players behave.
iGAMING TIMES: What is driving the shift in focus from “problem gambling” to “gambling-related harm”?
DAVID CLIFTON: gambling-related harm” is much wider than “problem gam- bling”. It includes not only the harm suffered by individuals from their own problem gam- bling but also the damage that can be caused to their families. It also extends to the damage that gambling has the potential to cause to communities and society more generally, for example through mental health and social problems, including crime. Certainly the focus of research is shifting with a view to gaining a better understand- ing of the scale and nature of the problems that gambling can cause in a wider context than merely to the problem gambler himself or herself.
iGT: How is this shift already being borne out in terms of companies’ obligations?
DC: The Gambling Commission has made it clear that it requires the industry to understand that gambling can quickly move from being merely an entertainment to becoming a major problem for individuals and therefore their families and then, more widely, for society generally. In particular, it expects gambling operators to use the extensive data they hold on customers in order to better identify those who are developing gambling behaviour that is likely to become problematic and thus help them change that behaviour before it becomes unmanageable. Designers of gambling products have an important role to play here too.
iGT: And what implications is this shift likely to have, further down the line, as the concept of gambling-related harm is expanded?
DC: More research requires more funding and the Gambling Commission has flagged up in its recently published Annual Report that it will assess whether there is a case for government to take action by introducing a statutory levy to improve the arrangements for research, education and treatment. In so doing, I hope it will take into account that recent very substantial voluntary settlement payments made by operators following Gambling Commission enforcement action has meant that GambleAware is already working to double its annual expenditure to £16m.