Britain does not have to be a nation of punters. We need to rein in this industry
Massive profits are being made from the most vulnerable in society. But a review of gambling law would strengthen the status quo.
Gambling takes a huge toll on society. In England alone, the cost of repairing the social harm it causes (such as unemployment, debt and health problems) is more than £1.2 billion, and that's a conservative estimate. On top of this, punters in the UK lose around £14 billion each year on betting sites uden dansk licens and others, and the people who are most socially and economically disadvantaged are more likely to suffer.
These figures come from a comprehensive review of gambling harms published by Public Health England (PHE). The amounts associated with gambling are staggering and confirm the need to think carefully about gambling, how to promote it and who should bear the cost of the damage it causes. While the government has begun to take this into account in its review of the Gambling Act 2005, a system of views that seeks to simultaneously protect the public and ensure that the gambling sector continues to thrive may be reinforcing the status quo.
Can the public be protected while ensuring that the industry continues to create jobs and contribute to the economy and growth? The current business model for gambling does not. There is growing evidence that it unhealthily relies on those who have been hurt to make a significant portion of its profits. A study conducted over a three-month period found that 40% of online sports betting expenditure came from 15% of players categorised as moderate risk or problem gamblers. A large-scale study of bank transactions found that 1% of players spend 58% of their income on betting and suffer from a range of financial, medical and personal problems.
Ethical issues aside, an industry that makes significant profits from those affected or at risk of harm does not demonstrate the resilience on which a healthy economic model is based. Instead, it appears to be based on a degree of exploitation of the very consumers that governments and regulators should seek to protect.
Government should include alternative legal, economic and commercial practices that can protect the public within its purview.
Contrary to popular belief, we are not really a nation of gamblers. Less than half of the population gambles beyond the national lottery and even fewer do so regularly. Thus, aggressive advertising and marketing is a direct result of the fact that gambling companies with multi-billion dollar turnover have to attract a relatively small pool of potential customers.
It is important to remember that the UK gambling market has not always been like this. Until 2007, when the Gambling Act was fully enacted, gambling was allowed but not encouraged in the UK. The Act changed this, positioning gambling as a valid leisure activity to be promoted - which the industry accepted enthusiastically. The last 14 years have been an experiment with economic policies and free market priorities that have done little to protect the public from harm and, as the PHE report shows, have led to significant social costs at a time when we are ill-prepared to tolerate them. .
It's time to ask whether an industry that contributes to the economy by potentially exploiting vulnerable people and reinforcing existing inequalities is the kind of economic contribution we want. Maybe there is another way - the industry sacrifices its profits by removing aggressive advertising and marketing, and focuses on providing safer products, potentially making it more sustainable.
But this is a debate we have to have. The economic damage gambling does to society underlines why we should be doing it now.
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