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Don’t Hate the Player, Regulate the Game: Gambling Is a Public Health Issue

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“You can find yourself gambling without making a conscious decision to be there,” remarked one enviously articulate 16-year-old. It was a cold December morning that framed this year’s GambleAware conference, where advocates from YGAM – an organisation that educates young people about gambling risks – explained that children are not protected well enough. With child-directed marketing, cryptocurrency, social casinos, gambling streams and in-game gambling features, it is clear that regulation is simply insufficient at protecting our children.

In the UK, just shy of a quarter of a million individuals are estimated to be experiencing significant harm from gambling. But these individuals have friends, parents, partners and children who are impacted too. In total, 3.6 million people are “affected” by serious gambling harms. This burden, as is so often the case, falls disproportionately on those of low-economic status. Gambling harm acts as a multiplier effect to the stream of other public health issues that come knocking at the same doors.

The conference sits against a backdrop of healthcare pressures, a cost-of-living crisis, Christmas, and the World Cup; a cocktail of risk factors that no mixologist with a conscience would serve. This is because increasing financial pressure increases gambling frequency, with 24% of women anticipating gambling more often during the cost-of-living crisis. Literally against all odds, people are hoping to pay for food and heating with “winnings”.

Still, these sentiments are not the only sobering details from that day. I was struck by the fervent voices from those with lived experience of gambling harm, opening up about homelessness, compounded stigma, and suicidal ideation (over 400 people a year take their own life because of gambling harm.)  But also inspired by their messages of hope, of rebuilt lives, families sticking together, and lives saved. It was remarkable. The message was clear: action must be taken to minimise harm and any holistic approach must be informed by those with lived experience.

The conference felt like a flag being vehemently staked into the ground. A flag which read “No longer should we blame the individual. It is time to tackle gambling harm as a public health issue.” (Either that or something far catchier that captures the reader’s attention.) Regardless, the conference brought together far reaches of the gambling sphere to discuss what a public health approach to gambling entails.
So, what does that mean? Well, lots of things really. It means proper regulation of a sector profiting £14bn a year. It means adequate regulation of online environments. It means working with the industry and addressing marketing practices. It also means listening to people, raising awareness, and improving service capacity and access. It means targeted treatment and suitable aftercare. It means reducing stigma.
It also means collaboration. With no clear national strategy, conferences like this are integral for the pockets of passionate stakeholders to group together and calibrate a response to the growing issue at hand. The time for action is now. And while the wait for the Government’s white paper continues, it is essential we look to alternative vehicles for change. ‘Properly tempered anger is a useful public health tool’ commented Sir Frank Atherton, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales. “Our children must be protected,” declared Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England.
If there was one thing I took away from the conference, it was something else that Professor Whitty said, “a treatment focus is not sufficient.” It’s true. Proper regulation and prevention are key. If we are serious about protecting the millions of people who will fall prey to gambling in the next decade then only focusing on treatment is not enough. By then, it’s already too late.


Ben Ford is a research associate at the Bristol Hub for Gambling Harms Research at the University of Bristol, and a PhD candidate in Psychology at Edge Hill University.

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