Excessive gambling: Prevention and Harm Reduction, a conference held at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 15th to 17 January 2014.
Conference Highlights and Questions Arising
Should gambling prevention, treatment and research be funded directly from the National Lottery?
This was a rare European gambling conference not directly funded by the gambling industry. It was organised by the Centre du Jeu Excessif (Centre for Excessive Gambling) which is located in Lausanne and which, interestingly enough, is funded out of a 0.5% share of the profits of the Swiss national lottery. This immediately makes one wonder why such a thing doesn’t happen in Britain. It would surely be appropriate if one of the ‘good causes’ funded by the National Lottery was problem gambling prevention, treatment and research. That also happens in some states in the USA. It was timely to hold the gambling conference in Switzerland since new Swiss gambling legislation is being drafted right now. Swiss gambling regulation is quite tight; for example, gambling machines have been confined to casinos since 2005. It will be interesting to see if their new law maintains present controls or moves in the direction of lifting some of the existing restraints.
Are FOBTs just the British variant of a global move to circumvent local laws that restrict the dangers of EGMs?
There were speakers at the conference from all over Europe as well as from Russia, Australia, Canada and the USA. Several of the keynote speakers had interesting things to say about electronic gambling machines (EGMs). Robert Williams from the USA referred to the comparatively high concentration of EGMs in Europe compared to the USA; but he thought the problems that can so easily be associated with EGMs had been kept down by severely limiting maximum sizes of stakes and prizes. Ralph Lattimore, from the Australian Productivity Committee (which has produced, in 1999 and 2010, two of the most comprehensive reviews of the costs and benefits of gambling), used the expression ‘high powered’ to refer to EGMs that get round such limits in one way or another, for example the ‘pokie’ machines in Australia which allow multi-line, multi-credit staking, which accounts for the problems EGMs have caused there. The Productivity Committee in its 2010 report recommended mandatory pre-commitment, but the social clubs, where many of the pokies are situated, spent 20 million Australian dollars lobbying against the proposal and it has not happened. A prominent German gambling researcher, Gerhard Meyer, told me that in his country the stake and prize limits are circumvented by allowing winnings to be ‘paid’ in the form of points exchangeable for money. This helps put the British experience of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) into wider international context. It makes it clear that the FOBTs are just the British variant of a global move to circumvent local laws that restrict the dangers of EGMs. Neither multi-line, multi-credit staking nor exchange of points for money are allowed under British regulations, but casino-style machine gambling with high stakes was allowed to creep in via a loophole in British regulations.
Jörg Häfeli, a Swiss contributor to the conference, addressed the important question of whether some forms of gambling are more dangerous than others. It is odd that, although everyone recognises that some forms of gambling such as the National Lottery are less dangerous, and other forms such as casino table games more so, we have nothing for gambling similar to the Class A, B, C system which is central to British regulation of drug supply and consumption. Or perhaps we do. Jörg reviewed three systems that have been proposed for suggesting how dangerous a form of gambling might be – the Veikkaus Ray, GAM-GARD, and ASTERIG models. They have a lot in common, each including stake and prize sizes, speed of play, and ‘near misses’ as signs of danger. FOBTs would clearly have been identified as dangerous if, 10 to 15 years ago, such a warning system had been in place.
Analysis of the ‘happiness question’ in the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey suggests 1) that people with gambling problems are as unhappy as those suffering from a serious illness such as cancer, and 2) that the threshold for defining a gambling problem is being set too high.
Professor David Forrest from the University of Salford gave a fascinating run down of results he has produced by analysing the single ‘happiness question’ included in the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. Such a question, asking people to rate how happy they would say they were ‘these days’ on a scale from 1 to 10, has become very popular for inclusion in population surveys, so there is a lot of comparative data. I admit I was sceptical about such an apparently simple question, but David’s results convinced me there may be something in it. What he finds is that scoring as having a gambling problem on the PGSI (Problem Gambling Severity Index) was associated with the same degree of unhappiness as suffering from a serious illness such as cancer. This was the case even after allowing for a number of socio-demographic factors and alcohol and tobacco consumption.
Furthermore, having a somewhat lower PGSI score, but one which suggested that gambling was at a ‘moderate risk’ level, was also associated with significant unhappiness, roughly equivalent to being unemployed. The latter finding led him to suggest that the threshold for defining a gambling problem on the PGSI is currently being set too high (at 8 plus). If it was reduced (to 5 plus) to include the ‘moderate risk’ group, as he and others, such as Robert Williams from the USA, believe it should, this would immediately double the estimate of adults experiencing problems with their gambling according to the results of the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey.
In addition to the above, those who said Yes to the question asking whether any close relative or partner had had a gambling problem in the last 12 months also indicated significant unhappiness.
It is only fair to add that those who said they had gambled, but who scored zero on the PGSI, the largest group in the survey, indicated that they were happier than non-gamblers. That was significantly so for men gamblers in general and specifically for women bingo players. Assuming of course that happiness is the goal we should all be striving for, and that Government should be using policy to promote it, these findings, if valid and replicable, do focus our minds on whether gambling policy should be favouring moderate happiness for some at the expense of much unhappiness for others.
The first study of the prevalence of gambling problems among homeless people in Britain suggests that more than one in ten homeless people may have gambling problems
Steve Sharman spoke about his research on the prevalence of gambling problems among homeless people in one area of London. This is the first such study to be carried out in Britain and only, he believed, the fourth to have been conducted anywhere. Over 400 people using services for homeless people in the Westminster Council area were interviewed about gambling by their keyworkers. Problem gambling prevalence was found to be 11.4%. This is a very high figure, and it was higher still amongst rough sleepers compared to those living in hostel accommodation.If more than one in ten homeless people have gambling as a problem, additional to their homelessness, this represents a large group who would have been completely missed by the British Gambling Prevalence and English and Scottish Health Surveys, and whose gambling problems are probably being missed by homelessness services most of the time.