As gambling revenues rise in the UK, consumer trust in gambling continues to decline. When the UK Gambling Act was passed in 2005, £686 million was lost by gamblers online, according to data firm H2gc. In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, online gambling losses rose to £8.3 billion, an increase of more than 25 per cent on the previous year. The majority of gamblers lose less than £2 a day, but for some their gambling habit leads only to isolation and addiction. The Gambling Commission estimates that roughly 340,000 adults in the UK are problem gamblers, about 1.4 per cent of the 25 million people who placed some form of bet in 2019.
Half of the clubs in the Premiership still have gambling logos emblazoned across their shirts
Public concern has been fuelled by perceptions of foot-dragging in dealing with addiction issues. William Hill closed 700 of its 2,200 shops after the maximum bet on fixed odds betting terminals, described as the “crack cocaine” of wagering, was reduced from £100 to £2 in 2018, but this followed years of public outcry and very little action by the industry, which could have introduced technology in shops to track play by individuals long before the government was forced to respond.
Although the UK has one of the most mature online gambling markets in the world, it was only in 2019 that the Gambling Commission mandated that credit cards could not be used to fund accounts, and that all operators had to participate in a central self-exclusion scheme called Gamstop. Prior to the launch of Gamstop in 2018, a problem gambler could close an online betting account with one operator and open up a new account elsewhere five minutes later.
Young men are especially vulnerable to addiction, but the regulations about marketing and promotion are often confused and contradictory. When I was head of telephone betting for Paddy Power, strict rules prevented gambling firms from using actors who even looked younger than 25 in their advertising but today, young players in half the clubs in the Premiership still have gambling logos emblazoned across their shirts.
As online gambling soars, there have been calls for mandatory limits on wagering, but based on my years of experience in the industry, I know that financial loss is just the tip of the iceberg. The young men who are most at risk lack the disposable income of older gamblers, who typically lose three times as much each year. Problem gamblers isolate themselves from friends and family, losing track of time and gambling for longer than they intend to, according to the UK charity Gamcare. Their mental health deteriorates with feelings of restlessness, irritability and remorse.
To identify the most vulnerable, the industry badly needs an accurate picture of the losses and online behaviour of problem gamblers by age group. The UK Gambling Commission has asked operators to identify at-risk players, but the vast majority of problem gamblers have more than one online gambling account. The only entity that could surmount data protection concerns to analyse the behaviour of problem gamblers, regardless of which mobile apps they use, is the Gambling Commission itself.
The Gambling Commission should be publishing accurate information on the losses suffered by problem gamblers online across all of their accounts, broken out by age. They should identify at-risk behaviour beyond financial loss, including the way that self-excluded players browse, deposit, withdraw and place wagers online, and they should insist that operators adopt common standards to use this data to nip problem gambling in the bud.
This cannot happen without proper investment. The industry has an obligation to fund the Gambling Commission properly. It has less than 350 staff to regulate 2,652 operators that turn over tens of billions of pounds. The £38 million it spent on operating costs in 2020 came to just over a quarter of one percent of the gross gaming yield earned by the industry. Gambling companies provide entertainment to millions of people, but they have a responsibility to the most vulnerable. It’s high time that problem gambling was taken seriously.
The Pursuit of Kindness: An Evolutionary History of Human Nature by Éamonn Toland is published on 27 May (Liberties Press, £18.99)