Statistics, statistics, everywhere ….. but what should people think?

We can expect increasing production of research statistics as the UK Government’s Review of the Gambling Act 2005 proceeds.

In addition to PwC’s “Review of unlicensed online gambling in the UK” published by the Betting and Gaming Council on 4 February 2021 (on which we have reported separately here), other examples within the last few days include those listed below.

Each of them most certainly represent potentially valuable contributions to the gambling-related harm debate, but it will be essential that great care is taken when assessing their evidential value in relation to the issues raised by the Government’s Review, rather than merely placing reliance on the media headlines they have each provoked.

1. Lloyds Banking Group customer data focusing on the extent of gambling related harms

Commenting on an article entitled “The association between gambling and financial, social and health outcomes in big financial data” published in Nature Human Behaviour on 4 February 2021, the University of Oxford has said:

High levels of gambling are associated with a 37% increase in mortality, according to a new study, which reveals that the top 1% of gamblers surveyed spent 58% of their income and one in ten are spending 8% on the habit. Published today [4 Feb] in Nature Human Behaviour, the study led by Dr Naomi Muggleton, of Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, highlights the financial damage, negative lifestyles and health of gamblers, who can move from ‘social’ to high-level gambling in months.

Gambling has long been associated with addictive behaviour and financial problems, but the report reveals the association with a range of wide-ranging serious issues – including increased mortality.  Calling for policymakers to do more to detect and protect the highest-spending gamblers, who can rapidly transition from moderate spending, the report says, ‘High levels of gambling are associated with a likelihood of mortality that is about one-third higher, for both men and women, younger and older.’

Dr Muggleton says:

“To me, the striking finding is the extent to which even low levels of gambling are associated with harm. For many years, there has been a focus on outcomes among the most extreme gamblers. Our work shows that financial distress, social ills, and poorer health are more prevalent among low level gamblers.”

Dr Rachel Volberg, of the school of public health at the University of Massachusetts, says:

“This study represents a real leap in helping us understand gambling harms that will influence thinking in the gambling studies field and beyond.”

Gambling may be seen as an ‘ordinary pastime’ and advertising has greatly increased its visibility in the last decade. Sport in particular has become dominated by gambling associations, ‘One in six adverts shown during  the  broadcaster  ITV’s  programming  for  the  2018  FIFA  World Cup promoted gambling – an event that led to calls from some  community  and  policy  leaders  for  greater  regulation.  This is an example of what some public health researchers have called the ‘gamblification of sport’.’

Dr Muggleton says:

“It’s unclear whether gambling causes negative outcomes, or whether already vulnerable people are disproportionately targeted by bookmakers, for example through advertising and locating betting shops in impoverished neighbourhoods. Either of these relationships is worrying and could have implications for public health policies.”

The researchers show gambling is associated with devastating consequences. In the largest survey of its type, using banking transactions rather than self-reported data, the team was able to track accurately bank spending on gambling – and the consequences. In 2018, the researchers followed more than 100,000 individuals. They found mean average spending of £1345 in the year on gambling. The median figure is much lower, £125, showing that some gamblers are spending very large sums.

High levels of gambling are revealed through the bank data to be associated with a range of financial problems. According to the report, ‘Higher  gambling  is  associated  with  a  higher  rate  of  using  an  unplanned  bank  overdraft,  missing  a  credit  card,  loan  or  mortgage  payment,  and  taking  a  payday  loan.

A  10%  point  increase  in  absolute  gambling  spend  is  associated  with  an  increase  in  payday  loan  uptake  by  51.5% … and the likelihood of missing a mortgage payment [increases] by 97.5%.’

The study reveals how gambling is ‘sticky behaviour’ and can very quickly become problematic, ‘We  find  that,  for  example,  three   years  earlier  around  half  of  the  highest-spending  gamblers  were  already gambling heavily, while only six months before, over 6.9% of these heavy gamblers were not gambling at all, highlighting the fast acceleration with which some individuals can transition into heavy gambling.’

The team maintains that gambling can have a serious impact on lives, ‘We find that higher gambling is associated with a higher risk of future unemployment and future physical disability.’

By interrogating the bank data, the researchers were able to find that heavy gamblers spend less on health and well-being. The study states that there is ‘a negative association between gambling and self-care, fitness activities, social activities, and spending on education and hobbies. There  is  also  an  association  between  gambling,  social  isolation  and  night-time  wakefulness—individuals  spending  more  on  gambling, travel less and are more likely to spend at night..’

According to Dr Volberg, the study was not without problems – since it does not include cash betting. But she says:

“To date, studies of gambling harms have been limited by reliance on small samples and self-reports of behaviour. Analysis of banking transactions provides unique insights into the scope and sequencing of gambling harms at the individual and population levels with implications for gambling policy, regulation, and harm minimization.”

Gambling Related Harm APPG Chair, Carolyn Harris MP, is quoted in a Guardian article entitled “Even low levels of gambling linked to financial hardship, study finds” responding to this study with the following words:

These findings are the most conclusive evidence yet of the gambling industry profiteering from the vulnerable and those in severe financial hardship. The government needs to get a grip and properly regulate this toxic industry.

More in-depth analysis of the study reveals that:

  • the researchers expressly acknowledge that “the evidence we present raises questions of causation” adding that “further work is needed to measure the extent to which gambling-related harm is driven by causal mechanisms and/or whether gambling firms increasingly target the most vulnerable members of society through advertising and the selection of store locations. Second, our methodology does not rule out the possibility of reverse causation, such that an increase in harm precedes an increase in gambling”, and
  • as pointed out by Regulus Partners in their recent Winning Post newsletter, “when calculating expenditure, researchers looked exclusively solely at ‘outflows of cash’ without considering inflows”, adding that “this is a critical omission and one that largely invalidates the study’s estimates of mean and median ‘expenditure’ (especially if any larger gross depositing is driven by the fairly common phenomenon of ‘recycling’ winnings)”.

2. More than 50,000 women register with GamStop

On 5 February 2021, just two days after the BBC reported on a woman’s online slots gambling problem with the heading “I gambled our house away without telling my partner”, it was revealed that more than 50,000 women have registered to self-exclude from all online gambling sites via GamStop.

Commenting on this significant number of self-exclusions by women, Fiona Palmer, CEO of Gamstop, has said:

As we begin to understand the demographic make up of our register it is important to feed back to the various support agencies and work together to encourage those women who have registered with Gamstop to access the help they may need going forward. 50,000 female registrants is a significant number and we are pleased that they have found the Gamstop self-exclusion scheme and that it is a useful practical tool to help with their gambling issues.

This follows an illuminating “Psychology of problem gambling in women” presentation by Liz Karter, a leading UK therapist in gambling addiction, at the recent KnowNow’s Player Protection Forum Digital Conference that drew attention to statistics showing the number of female problem gamblers increasing at double the rate of men. Those statistics are contained in a first year report by GamCare’s Women’s Programme indicating that whilst the number of women reporting gambling problems is increasing at double the rate of men, only one per cent of women who experience gambling related harm contact the National Gambling Helpline.

Commenting on GamStop’s 50,000 female registrations threshold being exceeded, Anna Hemmings, CEO of GamCare, has said:

We must get to grips with the unnecessary shame and stigma women feel around asking for help with gambling. Gambling is not just a male activity, and it can affect women in significant, potentially life-changing ways. Our dedicated Women’s Programme has told us that we need to remove barriers for women to access help with gambling related harm – the issues that women are facing are often hidden from support services. GamCare is pleased to be able to work with Gamstop so people registering for online self-exclusion can also be swiftly connected through to specialist support and treatment services, which greatly increases the chance of sustaining a recovery from gambling harms.

3. Suicidality and gambling among young adults in Great Britain

On 6 February 2021, under the heading “Young people are NINE times more likely to attempt suicide if they are problem gamblers”, the Daily Mail belatedly reported on research findings arising from an online survey, reported in January 2021 by the Lancet Public Health under the title: “Suicidality and gambling among young adults in Great Britain”.

These findings are mentioned in an announcement on the launch of the Lancet Public Health Commission on Gambling, on which we have separately reported here.

In support of a conclusion that “problem gambling could be a substantial risk factor for suicide attempts among both young men and young women”, the precise research findings were:

  • 3549 eligible participants completed the survey between June 25 and August 16, 2019.
  • 24 of 62 men who had attempted suicide in the past year had survey scores that were indicative of problem gambling, compared with 38 of 1077 men who had not attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts in the past year.
  • 13 of 85 women who had attempted suicide in the past year had survey scores that were indicative of problem gambling, compared with 25 of 1184 women who had not attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts in the past year.
  • The adjusted odds ratio for attempted suicide was 9·0 in men with scores that indicated problem gambling and 4·9 in women with scores that indicated problem gambling, compared with participants of the same gender with PGSI scores of 0.