Public Health and Gambling: Lessons from New Zealand
Peter Adams, of the School of Population Health at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has been one of the most consistent and determined campaigners over the years for recognition of the dangers to health of gambling expansion. With a colleague, Fiona Rossen, he has done it again and produced an excellent article in the June 2012 issue of Addiction entitled ‘A tale of missed opportunities: pursuit of a public health approach to gambling in New Zealand’. There are important lessons for the UK here. Adams and Rossen chronicle the optimism of the 2003 Gambling Act in New Zealand which promised a comprehensive public health approach to gambling for the first time. A slogan was 'Problem gambling: our communities, our families, our problem'. New Zealand was in the lead internationally in viewing gambling as a public health issue. The UK continues to be in the dark ages by comparison.
However, their article is a sad tale of disillusionment, as the Ministry of Health drew back from its commitment to prevention and harm minimisation and reverted to an individualised focus on treatment, as the gambling industry became more organised and effective in pursuing its interests politically, and as machine gambling, dependence upon grants from gambling sources, and a pragmatic approach to collaborating with the industry, became the norms. Reflecting on this missed opportunity, Adams and Rossen identify four aspects of the Gambling Act which, with hindsight, can be seen to have impeded the promised public health approach. The first was a late amendment to the Act which required consultation with the gambling industry on sensitive issues such as research, social marketing and harm minimisation initiatives (Gambling Watch UK is highly critical of current arrangements for funding gambling research and treatment in Britain). The second was the lack of coordination between the different responsible government departments, the Department of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Health (Gambling Watch UK is arguing for much greater involvement of the Department of Health in Britain, but the lesson from New Zealand is that inter-department collaboration is vital). The third mistake was the way 'benefits' for communities were interpreted in the Act in purely financial terms. Lotteries and machine gambling were set up to return significant amounts of money to community groups so that many charities, sports clubs, churches, schools, arts groups and others started to become dependent on gambling profits and in some cases became strong advocates for gambling (a clear warning for us in Britain).
The final mistake was the failure to set up a body which would be independently accountable for overseeing the broad public health policy and for regulation. In that respect Britain might count itself fortunate in having the Gambling Commission, set up under the 2005 Gambling Act. But the Gambling Commission is of course closely linked to just one Government Department, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which, on its own, can not be expected to be responsible for a comprehensive public health approach, and in any case would be an inappropriate Department to take a lead in such a task. This important article finishes with a sombre warning 'for those nations in the process of bedding-down high-intensity commercial gambling', which obviously includes Britain:
Once governments and communities become vested in the profits from gambling, in the absence of some form of strong and independent accountability, well-intentioned public health strategies will gravitate towards token and superficial programmes that give the impression of addressing issues but in reality cover up and disguise the true extent of harm from gambling.