The context for the strategy
The majority of those who gamble appear to do so with enjoyment, and without exhibiting any signs of problematic behaviour.
The number of gamblers
The most recently published participation and prevalence data for England and Scotland estimated that in 2015 45 per cent of those aged 18 or over had participated in some form of gambling in the four weeks prior to the survey. 18-24 year olds were the least likely to have gambled (33 per cent), 45-54 year olds the most likely (54 per cent). The overall participation rate has been falling recently because of a drop in National Lottery draw participation. The National Lottery still remains by far the most popular gambling activity, followed by other lotteries and scratch cards.
There are however some individuals who do experience harm as a result of their gambling. The 2012 English and Scottish Health Surveys estimated that the number of problem gamblers in England and Scotland, as defined by the most widely used screening tools, was then around 250,000. There were a further 470,000 individuals classified according to the screens as being at moderate risk of problem gambling. These estimates are likely to be conservative. The relevant studies did not include certain population groups more likely to be more vulnerable to harm (for example, students living in halls of residence, homeless people, armed forces personnel and those in prison).
An effective strategy should be focussed on everyone who does, or might, experience harm, including the ‘at-risk’ gamblers. Problem and ‘at risk’ gamblers account for a relatively high proportion of the total amount of gambling that takes place (What proportion of gambling is problem gambling?).
The numbers of problem gamblers and of those ‘at–risk’ have remained relatively stable over the last decade (however there are differences in the methods of recording which make it difficult to be absolutely certain). It is unclear whether that should be regarded as evidence of:
- The failure of previous efforts to make an impact on the size of the problem
- A success, in that the numbers have not risen despite significant increases in opportunities to gamble through changing technology and in invitations to gamble through advertising
- Or (as some would argue) simply a reflection of the fact that there will always be a certain number of people who experience problems with their gambling, whatever measures are taken to inhibit it.
The extent of gambling-related harm
Simply counting the number of problem gamblers is likely to underestimate the true extent of gambling-related harm. Harm can also be experienced by those who would not be identified by the screens as problem gamblers and gambling-related harm can be experienced by people other than the individual player (conversely, individuals categorised as problem gamblers may not experience harm every time they play). Harm can extend to their families and friends, and more widely to their employers and their communities. The numbers of those who experience harm as a result of gambling by others can be considerably greater than those who harm themselves.
In an ideal world, a basic requirement of an effective responsible gambling strategy would be some way of measuring the total harm caused by gambling, taking account of these wider effects. A reasoned judgement could then be made of the resources which should be committed to attempts to minimise that harm (provided, of course, that effective measures for doing so exist). Analogous estimates have proved helpful in developing the strategy towards alcohol misuse, and are being deployed in the case of obesity.
Developments since the last strategy was published
The previous strategy, covering the three years 2013-14 to 2015-16, was published in December 2012. There have been a number of developments since then relevant to this new strategy.
The increased willingness of operators to engage with the responsible gambling agenda
First, there has been a marked change in the approach of the gambling industry to the responsible gambling agenda. There is a visibly greater willingness to engage constructively, encouraged strongly by the Gambling Commission. Industry leaders show growing recognition that the sustainability of their business models depends on doing more to promote responsible gambling, despite any short-term impact on profitability – not least because the alternative might be more intrusive regulation. Continuing public concern about high-stake gaming machines, a marked increase in gambling advertising, and the impact of campaigning by groups concerned about the negative impact of gambling have all had an effect on the political context in which decisions about gambling regulation are taken.
The potential importance of the change in operators’ behaviour is considerable. Many of the new initiatives have, however, yet to prove their significance in terms of impact on gambling-related harm. Greater acceptance of responsibility does not easily translate into effective action given the, as yet, limited evidence about what works. Nor have all the (hopefully transitional) problems (there have, for example, been some difficulties providing researchers with access to data sets because of issues of commercial confidentiality) with new approaches been completely resolved.
A second development is the continued rapid pace of technological change, affecting both the structure of the industry and the nature of its offer to consumers.
Particularly noteworthy are:
- The availability of a wider range of platforms on which gambling is possible, and a continued shift towards remote forms of gambling, including through mobile phones. Advances in mobile technology also offer opportunities for increased advertising and marketing, such as the use of GPS data to tailor advertisements to users in specific locations.
- The growing intersection between gambling and other product lines, such as social gaming. These developments are blurring the boundaries between gambling and other forms of leisure activity. The 2012 strategy identified the need to keep the convergence between social gaming and gambling under review, with a particular eye on the potential normalisation of gambling for young people. That need remains.
- Advances in technology which create potential for treatment providers to develop different forms of intervention.
The responsible gambling strategy needs to keep abreast of these developments, which could have significant effects on the nature of the gambling population or in the propensity for harm of different groups within it.
Changes in regulation
There have been a number of changes over the last three years in the regulatory framework relevant to problem and ‘at-risk’ gambling. In particular, in Strengthening Social Responsibility the Gambling Commission announced a requirement for larger operators to evidence in their annual assurance statements the steps taken to satisfy themselves about the delivery of their social responsibility obligations. The requirement includes an assessment of the risk of harm to their customers. The Gambling Commission has also made a number of other important changes to the Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCP) and to the Remote Technical Standards (RTS) concerning children’s access to gambling facilities, pre-commitment and time out, self-exclusion, and marketing and advertising. The changes to the LCCP represent the first major revision since the licence conditions were written ten years ago (changes made to the LCCP issued by the Gambling Commission, February 2015).
In addition, a number of local authorities are taking a greater interest in gambling-related harm in their areas through their Health and Wellbeing Boards and their Licensing Boards. Local risk assessments have been introduced requiring operators to identify local factors that might create specific risks and to demonstrate how they will mitigate them; and local authorities are being encouraged to create a local area profile. Local authorities have also been given greater planning powers to influence decisions about the opening of new betting shops in their areas (though the extent of the change has been less than those who pressed for it would have wished). These developments offer the potential for forging partnerships and developing a public health approach at a local level, though more work is needed to realise the opportunities.
Advertising, marketing and sponsorship
A further contextual issue is the substantial growth in the volume of gambling-related advertising, marketing (including online marketing) and sponsorship over the last few years. The growth in the level of broadcast advertising is particularly striking. According to Ofcom, the total number of gambling advertisement spots (the term ‘spot’ refers to a single advertisement of any duration) shown on television increased from 152,000 in 2006 to 537,000 in 2008, following the liberalisation of the market. The number had increased further, to 1.39 million, by 2012. More up to date figures are not available.
A longstanding concern has been the effect of gambling advertising on children and young people. Ofcom reported that there were 1.8 billion commercial gambling ‘impacts’ on 4 to 15 year olds in 2012 in the UK. The effect of advertising on participation in gambling and on the prevalence of problem gambling is difficult to establish (Gambling advertising: a critical research review). The significant number of impacts is, however, a potential cause for unease.
A connected series of reviews by different bodies in 2014-15 concluded that the rules governing gambling advertising were broadly adequate. But they flagged a number of areas of possible concern, including digital marketing through social media and misleading advertising of free bets. One outcome was an announcement by the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG) of an updated Industry Code for Socially Responsible Advertising. The updated code includes a new measure under which operators will refrain from any television advertisements before the 9pm watershed which make offers exclusive to new customers (sign up offers). The Gambling Commission also strengthened provisions in its LCCP relating to the marketing of promotional offers, such as free bets and bonuses. The Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage has made clear that she will look regularly at the issue of gambling advertising. She has asked the industry and regulators to ensure that marketing for gambling products does not reach young people through social media.
B2 gaming machines
We are aware of the level of public concern about the maximum (£100) size of stakes on B2 gaming machines. We have deliberately not addressed the issue in this strategy, because we will be providing advice about it separately.
The £100 maximum was left unchanged following the 2013 triennial review of stakes and prizes. Our advice to the Gambling Commission at the time pointed out that staking on machines at this level in betting premises (ie bookmakers) is out of step with the normal regulatory pyramid – the principle that higher stakes should only be possible in circumstances where customer protections are more extensive. The world has changed since the principle was first expressed, for example because of the availability of remote gambling. But we would still expect riskier products (whether remote or land-based) to be accompanied by proportionate controls and protections.
We nevertheless concluded in 2013 that, on balance, the harm reduction case for change in the status quo had not been made conclusively. In submitting our advice to the Gambling Commission, we made it clear, however, that the precautionary principle might suggest the need for change in the next review, depending among other things on the progress made in identifying problematic patterns of play on machines and the means of addressing them. The Gambling Commission made this point explicitly when submitting their own advice to Ministers.
Since then, research and corporate action has focused on attempting to improve controls and protections for some individuals, mainly through work on predictive algorithms to trigger interventions with those at risk. This work is at an early stage of development and its effectiveness has not yet been evaluated.
In addition, in April 2015 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) introduced a requirement that single machine stakes of £50 or more can only be placed after discussion with counter staff or through account-based play. DCMS has recently published an assessment of the impact of that change.
The issue of maximum stake size will be reconsidered in the next triennial review of stakes and prizes on all machine play, expected shortly. We will provide advice to the Gambling Commission at that point.