Sunday, 17 March 2013

Welsh Government's low stakes on problem gambling

Is problem gambling being treated as a second-rate
illness by the Welsh Government?
(Pic :

The Welsh Government currently runs an annual National Health Survey that asks a certain number of people questions about their lifestyles and health conditions. I've mentioned recently that I believe those surveys are probably more accurate at recording health levels than the census, presumably because it takes lifestyles into account.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) recently highlighted concerns, from various charities, that questions relating to online gambling were omitted from the survey. BBC Wales quote NatCen, who suggest that there could be 20,000 "problem gamblers" in Wales. Other estimates put the figure at 100,000.

It's said that Mick is going to launch a campaign on this sometime soon, while both Rebecca Evans AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) and Mohammad Ashgar AM (Con, South Wales East) have called on the Welsh Government to "raise awareness of the health risks."

Gambling laws and regulations aren't devolved, but health is, so this will impact the Welsh Government whether they like it or not.

Is gambling a "health problem"?

Has the spread of easy to access gambling websites caused
issues for those with pre-existing gambling problems?
(Pic : European Parliament)
I think it's hard for many people to get their head around the idea that "actions" that don't have any noticeable impact on physical health can still be health issue.

Since gambling laws changed in the noughties (I'll come back to that later), there's been a proliferation of online casinos, poker and gambling websites. It's probably very easy to get sucked in if you don't have to go through the trouble of visiting a bookies or a casino and can do it all via a mobile, tablet or computer.

I think most people "gamble sensibly" and only play the games once in a while or place bets once or twice a week – like playing the lottery. There'll still be people though who are predispositioned towards addictive behaviour through no fault of their own. Throw in the ease of access via the internet and you're going to cause problems.

There's not only the clear financial risks from gambling addiction – unless you're very good at it, or, for example, a professional poker player – but there are health risks too.

Gambling addiction has been compared to a chemical addiction, and the biological mechanisms are exactly the same as those for alcoholics and drug addicts. Just replace a higher tolerance for drink or drugs with higher stakes. It's also said that problem gamblers are twice as likely to commit suicide as non-gamblers.

There are, however, plenty of organisations out there than can help gambling addicts - like Gamblers Anonymous. That's pretty much synonymous with Alcoholics Anonymous or various quit smoking services - both of which are treated as serious health concerns.

So you have to wonder why gambling has been omitted from the health survey?

Gambling policy and regulations

 Gambling laws were reformed significantly in 2005, and the industry was
said to be worth around £8.7billion to the UK economy in 2009,
raising £1.4billion in duties.
(Pic :
Well, I'm lucky I'm not a betting man. Not because of fear of losing money, but because I'd clearly be crap at it.

I've touched on the National Lottery in relation to Welsh independence before, and eventually I'll come around to "vices" like drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling etc. - Vice Nation: Gambling.

The closest I've come to addressing those things was a post on legal ages back in 2011, where I suggested the gambling age be reduced across the board to 16. Currently there's a mix of 18 or 16 depending on what gambling method you use. For example, you can play the lottery or use certain fruit machines as a 16 year old, but can't play casino games.

I personally favour liberalised laws on things like gambling – because I believe informed adults and older teenagers should be free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't impact society disproportionately or infringe anyone else's rights.

Even if I take a more libertarian stance on that, I only believe it should be done if it's combined with better education and public awareness of possible issues. I think in the UK there's been the liberalisation without the education. Cynics amongst you could point to the goal being to maximise gaming duties too.

For example, I don't remember having any PSE lessons on gambling at school, despite PSE provision being relatively good. The closest we came to it was learning about probabilities in maths lessons.

The Gambling Act 2005 "tidied up" various pieces of antiquated legislation, and created the Gambling Commission to oversee regulation and licensing. It also created penalties for under-age gambling, as well as a regulatory framework for internet games - which were starting to emerge at the time.

Now I don't have any problem with the law itself, I think Labour were right to do it.

I think one of the problems is that it's legitimised and mainstreamed (in particular, internet/mobile) gambling
in terms of advertising, not as a "vice", but as a common-or-garden computer game.

It's true that casino-style games are generally advertised past the watershed, but what's noticeable is how often and invasively these things are advertised. I'm ambivalent about adverts at the best of times. I've got to say though, that the mFortune Fruit Machine calypso dancer - however obviously excited she is to be hawking some Java programming geek's wares - is doing my nut in.

Bingo adverts are shown all day – and like it or not, even if it's fairly innocuous, bingo is still a form of gambling. Some poker websites get around restrictions by actively advertising "free play" sites, whilst being pay sites in practice.

Call me paranoid, but I wouldn't go anywhere near an online casino as you can't tell if the games are rigged – even if there were legal guarantees and they were operated by reputable companies. A seasoned gambler would probably be able to tell if something's fishy at a real table in a real casino, but it's impossible over a screen.

Tobacco sponsorship was once heavily associated with Formula One - until it was phased out - and alcohol is still advertised, albeit under heavy restrictions. Betting companies, however, are increasingly sponsoring football clubs - Swansea City for example - and sporting events too. That's a natural partnership as gambling has always gone hand in hand with sport. But does all this make placing bets more tempting for those with gambling problems?

I'm not heavily familiar with the exact restrictions, but there doesn't seem to be any real boundaries here.

Is there anything preventing me from doing this?
(Click to enlarge)
I don't know if there's anything stopping me - example above - setting up with a Queen impersonator, dancing on screen in TV and banner ads, encouraging people to "join the fun" in crappy Javascript Blackjack games. If I sponsored Bridgend Town, would that make it even more legitimate?

So, is the best way to protect problem gamblers by more restrictions and regulations on advertising?

Or, do the likes of the Welsh Government need to do more to monitor the wider health and social impacts of modern gambling laws?


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