More research needed on the effects of gambling on British society

We reported in December 2019 on the establishment of a new independent charity called Action Against Gambling Harms (“AAGH”).

A new study, carried out by the Policy Institute at King’s College London for AAGH has found that, compared with other nations such as the US, Canada and Australia, there is relatively little research into the damage caused by gambling in the UK.

The report arising from that study, entitled “Identifying Research Priorities on Gaming-Related Harms” (that you can download below) describes this as ‘important’ because “overseas findings are not always translatable to a UK context, given cultural differences and variations in types of gambling products and gambling laws”, adding that “more funding is needed to address the lack of understanding of the problem in the UK”.

Seema Kennedy OBE, CEO of AAGH, is quoted as saying:

This important study shows how much we still don’t know about gambling and its effects on British society. We hope that these findings will galvanise research institutions and policymakers into commissioning further work to fill the gaps.

The study’s findings will be submitted to the UK Government, as part of its review of the Gambling Act 2005. This is likely to be welcomed, bearing in mind the following comments contained within the the Government’s formal Response to the House of Lords Select Committee’s Report on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry:

  • “We agree with the Committee that a robust evidence base is essential to effective policy making and regulation, and in order to make progress in this area we are working with experts to develop a model that delivers the data and insights we need to more fully understand gambling in Britain”.
  • “The government agrees that it is important to build the evidence base on gambling harms with high quality, independent research and is committed to working to this goal. We will be considering how to ensure the availability of high quality evidence to support policymaking as part of the Gambling Act Review”.
  • “The government believes that a healthy research landscape is one in which the academic community is able to identify its own avenues and topics of research, rather than be limited to working to priorities set by a single body …. We agree with the Committee’s recommendation to seek the advice from the research councils on the way forward for gambling research, and are now working with these to look at ways of widening and encouraging the pool of researchers focused on gambling”.

Under the heading “UK lags behind other countries on research into gambling harms”, the Policy Institute reports that the researchers looked at the following four key aspects of gambling in the UK and found that “all lack crucial evidence”:

1. Economic costs

The NHS, local authority social care and wider adult services, as well as prisons, are all being asked to include gambling as part of their remit. They are developing and financing initiatives involving staff training, screening, signposting and support for gamblers and others who are affected.

However, the study found only one piece of UK-based research that attempted to quantify the cost of such initiatives to the public purse, and this was limited to only a small number of areas in which problem gamblers come into contact with support services.

2. Gambling by children

The researchers also found very little evidence on the negative outcomes of gambling among children and adolescents in the UK – although much more research has been carried out into these issues internationally.

The report stresses the need for more longitudinal studies, which track children’s gambling behaviour over time. Such studies are particularly vital, it says, given the extensive exposure of children today to gambling marketing, and the gambling-like aspects of some online games played by children and teens.

3. Gambling by women

The study found there is a historic male bias in research into gambling harms, in part because gambling is often seen as a male issue, which means women are less likely to come forward for treatment.

However, more and more women are beginning to gamble, as the industry attempts to “feminise” gambling products and venues.

Australia, New Zealand, Canada and mainland Europe have done most of the relevant research into the harms of gambling to women, the study says, while there is a clear gap in the UK literature.

4. Gambling on sport

Research “may be struggling to keep pace” with advances in gambling on sport, the study warns, as online betting and new gambling opportunities, such as daily fantasy sports, mean the situation is fast-evolving, creating difficulties in assessing any harms caused.

But while research into the wider damage associated with this kind of gambling is scarce, there is evidence of a link between betting on sport and problematic gambling, the study says.

The report’s conclusion reads as follows:

This review focused on four areas: affordability, children, women and sports. These were chosen to reflect areas where there is growing policy interest, with an eye to contributing to the UK Government’s review of the Gambling Act 2005.

Our review found that there is a lack of literature addressing affordability in terms of cost benefit analysis of the gambling industry as whole. Industry supporters will point to the benefits of, for example, job creation and possibilities of urban regeneration in building new casinos. These benefits could be contrasted with the Lloyds Banking Group (Muggleton et al 2021) analysis which shows higher levels of gambling were associated with markers of financial hardship within their customer base. Also worth consideration is the acceptability of the affordability to the Treasury of the large profits made by industry and some individuals.

Missing from the data is assessment of costs in terms of demands made on the public sector. The NHS (including primary care-based GPs), local authority social care and wider adult services, and prisons are being asked to include gambling as part of their remit and are developing and financing initiatives involving staff training, screening, signposting and support for gamblers and affected others. Calculating the costs of these initiatives to the public purse needs far more research activity if we are to understand the full financial costs of gambling to the UK.

Similarly, there is a lack of evidence about costs to society of children’s gambling in terms of their use of mental health services for example. While qualitative research exists about implications for children of their parent(s) being a problem gambler, this is harder to assess quantitatively. Future avenues for research about gambling and children include the need for more longitudinal studies assessing implications for this first generation of children who have been exposed to extensive gambling marketing.

Another, much discussed, area is the blurring of lines between gaming and gambling. Literature about gambling and children and adolescents often focuses on associations with anti-social behaviours. Possibly of more value and where further focus is needed is the research about mental health problems being both a reason for gambling and being caused by gambling in young people – and evaluations of interventions to support children in this area. The need to address resilience and recovery among children and adults would be an important counterpart to such studies to avoid them being deficit focused.

The perception that gambling is a male issue, and the fact that fewer numbers of women come forward for treatment, means women gamblers have been less addressed in the literature than men; as with children, there is a lack of evidence about evaluations of tailored treatment approaches for these groups or family-focused interventions.

The need to develop more robust, personalised measures for quantifying gambling harms was mentioned in relation to children and cost benefit analysis (GambleAware, 2020). Current measures for diagnosing gambling addiction, for example, may not be relevant for screening the general population for being affected by gambling related harms or for measuring outcomes from treatment for specific client groups with co-morbidities or multiple long-term conditions. Wardle et al. (2019) suggest a range of areas where measures could be used more systematically to understand and monitor gambling related harms (Wardle, 2019). These relate to loss of employment, experience of bankruptcy and/or debt, loss of housing/homelessness, crime associated with gambling, relationship breakdown/problems, health-related problems, suicide and suicidality. Future work measuring the role of gambling in areas such as these could shed light on the wider costs of gambling harms to society.

Future studies should look to address the methodological limitations of the existing evidence base. In particular, there is a heavy reliance on self-report data, which is at risk of a range of biases, rather than the use of objective measures of gambling-related harms. Second, much of the data used is of a cross-sectional nature, precluding conclusions about the direction of the relationship between gambling behaviours and the experience of negative outcomes. The analysis of data from prospective longitudinal studies, which follow the same participants over time, would help to address this gap in the evidence.

Given the costs and difficulties of establishing a standalone longitudinal study, including the need for specialist skills and the challenges of data linkage (eg with NHS records), a more practical and feasible approach may be to ensure that existing longitudinal or cohort studies include this subject.