The month of August was a time for holidays, but it was also a time when the broadcast media aired an above average number of programmes at prime time about gambling and its potential to cause harm. Public conversation on the harms caused by gambling is rising. BBC One’s Panorama, ITV’s Ross Kemp and BBC Three’s Lloyd Griffiths covered similar ground, offering bleak examples of how gambling activity can lead to obsessive behaviours, addiction, debt and loss of relationships, home, job. In the very worst of these situations, families spoke movingly of how their sons had taken their own lives.
The evidence portrayed in these programmes does not reflect well on the actions of some of the gambling operators. The Panorama programme told the story of one lady, aged 61 years, who lost over £633,000 online. The handling of her account by the operator was highlighted despite the customer showing clear signs of problem gambling.
Throughout all three programmes, there were repeated references to the risks associated with products such as bonuses, free bets, multi-bets, games designed to keep players playing and incentivizing players to bet on lesser known sports like volleyball with no prior knowledge of the game. The widespread availability of gambling, with 24-hour access through mobile betting apps, and industry incentives for ‘VIP’ customers were also seen as contributing to addiction. Self-exclusion, whereby a gambler asks an operator to stop them placing bets, were consistently described by individuals who had experienced harm as ineffective because exclusion processes were not rigorous enough.
These programmes broadcast during August were matched by stories in the newspapers. Two examples show the ongoing interest in gambling and its impact. The Daily Mail was critical of betting company sponsorship of celebrity footballer Wayne Rooney, whilst The Sun carried a story of praise for another company’s move to end their sponsorship of the Scottish Premier Football League from former footballer and ex gambler Kevin Twaddle.
The reputational risks for the gambling industry in these accounts are obvious. Public discussion on the potential harm from gambling activities, and in particular online gambling, is increasing. This coincides with political interest in finding new solutions to some of the social harms that are more widely debated now than ever before. It is encouraging to see increasing recognition of gambling harm as a public health issue in the UK, unthinkable five years ago. The new work that is emerging through the Commission’s National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms will help to speed up progress.
The messages in these newspaper articles and TV broadcasts may not be new, but they are reaching a wider audience, which brings with it new challenges for the industry. In an interview in 2009 the head of a US Gambling regulator welcomed the opportunities which online gambling would bring to making gambling safer ‘since land-based gaming does not provide the tools that are possible in an online environment’ (Sparrow, 2009).
Some would suggest that there has been little visible progress here since 2009. Whatever the arguments on either side, what last month’s media coverage reflects is an increasing call for evidence of action that demonstrates real concern for consumers alongside the focus on entertainment and commercial benefits. Greater transparency and a cultural shift must underpin this. Josephine Holloway argues that switching the burden of responsibility away from the individual and onto the industry is at the heart of this. All of us who work for safer gambling in the UK must find new ways of reducing harm.
Sparrow, M (2009) Can internet gambling be effectively regulated? Managing the Risks.