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  • 27th Apr 2023

High stakes for gamblers

“Sometimes you get caught in the moment, you lose sight. Sometimes I could sit there and place countless bets within an hour. You don’t even realise, and then one minute you’re in front and within no time at all, you’re behind, and you can’t understand why.” – interview with typical gambler (6th April 2023)

After six ministers, four culture secretaries and too many years of waiting, the gambling white paper is finally here. Policy reviews tend not to set the pulse racing, but this one has the potential to make a real difference for a very vulnerable group of people. 

Government figures estimate that over 300,000 people in England are problem gamblers, with a further two million at risk. Unsurprisingly, this issue has a disproportionate impact on people who are already struggling. People with gambling problems are more likely to be unemployed, live in a deprived area and experience generally poorer health.

Public policy on gambling has long been in need of an overhaul. Nearly 20 years have passed since the last major change – the 2005 Gambling Act. While the gambling industry has thrived and adapted to the era of smartphones and digital gaming, regulation has not kept pace with this rapidly evolving market. That’s why we set up the Gambling Policy & Research Unit in 2021, to develop a rigorous evidence base on how to counteract problem gambling and safeguard the most vulnerable users. 

The Government’s new White Paper contains many sensible and overdue regulatory changes. The proposed levy to fund treatment and research is welcome. We’ve long advocated for rigorous evidence and experimentation to tell us what works in reducing harm, and we hope the levy will encourage more best practice research.

We’re also pleased to see a number of online protections being put into place. The White Paper will strengthen deposit limits, and will explore whether they should be set by default or made mandatory. Setting a default limit that is straightforward to amend is strongly supported by our research on deposit limits.

The White Paper also brings forward light touch affordability safeguards, with checks starting at the point at which a customer loses £125 in a month and evolving as the customers’ gambling behaviour changes. This threshold is in line with our research which found that spending over £250 a day was a sign of increased risk of gambling harm

Overall we are pleased to see the strong behavioural science evidence base that comes through in many of the measures. Our own behavioural risk audit was referenced as an example of this in practice and we’re pleased that our findings will be used to inform future changes to online choice architecture of operator sites.

Stricter rules around free bets and bonus turns are also a step in the right direction. Gambling behaviours are influenced by human psychology and triggers such as these. We know that marketing free bets drives people to gamble where they otherwise wouldn’t, and we know that tighter regulations could prevent at-risk groups from making the choice to place a bet. So it makes sense to simply remove the trigger and get rid of these offers. 

There are also many areas where we’d like to see a lot more in terms of regulation and harm reduction. It’s vital that gamblers can see their activity across all of the sites they use. Our research found that 86% of high-risk gamblers used at least five sites in the previous six months. This is a disaster for this vulnerable group – they should be able to set a single limit that aggregates all of the sites they use. In an interview scenario, participants expressed enthusiasm for this. One participant said: “I would love it. I wouldn’t mind because that would actually save my money, would save my life maybe.”

The White Paper also misses the mark on limiting gambling advertising. One of the recommendations asks the Premier League to consider restricting gambling logos from the front of football players’ shirts on match days. Good – but a drop in the ocean. There won’t be any restrictions on other parts of the kit, stadium ads or the pitch itself. The Belgian government is going much further and will ban gambling advertising on television, social media and public signs from July, including a later prohibition on ads in stadiums and sport sponsorship. Internationally, the UK is clearly lagging behind. 

The gambling industry also needs greater transparency. From now on, gambling companies will have to share information about high-risk customers with each other. The exact mechanism isn’t yet clear but nevertheless this is a good move – it should prevent people at risk of gambling harm from migrating between platforms. Gambling companies will also have to carry out credit checks and risk assessments. 

While this is welcome, we should go further. There is no consistent cross-industry standard for assessing whether someone is at risk of harm from gambling. At present, the parameters for judging this are inconsistent and opaque. For people to be truly protected, we need to know what industry is doing to find and help them. In the same vein, betting companies should be required by law to display information on their websites and marketing about how they score in terms of customer service and ethical business practices. Providing people with this information helps them to make informed decisions about where to spend their money.

For too long, gambling has been the Wild West of consumer regulation in the UK. The market has entirely transformed since 2005 and consumer protection has not kept pace. We know that people make riskier decisions online than they do in-person. Those that gamble need and deserve protection that is grounded in proper evidence. Today’s publication is a significant step forward. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’ll continue to develop the evidence base to help safeguard people at risk of gambling harm so that gambling is safer and fairer for all.