COVID-19 has brought significant consumer behavioural change and major impacts on the gambling industry. Naturally, as we stay at home and spend more time online, users are able to gamble more freely in the privacy of their own homes, accessing a variety of websites and smartphone applications.
As new technologies such as smart phones and tablets have emerged, alongside the liberalisation of the gambling industry and relaxation of advertising regulations for the industry, we have seen an increase in the number of people who gamble as a recreational activity (O'Malley, J & Tunney, R, 2016). However the jury is still out on whether this has resulted in an increase in the proportion of people with gambling problems.
My research has found that a factor which differentiates gambling using new technologies from traditional forms, such as going to casinos, bookmakers and trackside betting, is that it can be a very private activity. This means that there may not be the kind of brakes on behaviour that come from other people. Instead, the gambling industry is increasingly relying on innovative methods based on artificial intelligence that track player behaviour to try to identify people for whom gambling may be problematic.
The scale of the problem
While the Government has already started to research online gambling during lockdown - such as looking at trends in service use - the first steps towards developing effective harm prevention policies actually lies in identifying the nature and scale of the issue.
Since 2013, gambling disorder has been recognised as an addictive disorder in its own right (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It is a mental illness and although it is often present alongside other mental illnesses such as depression, it is not a symptom of them. Like some other forms of addiction, it is not the behaviour or activity itself - in this case gambling - that causes the addiction. But for reasons that are not fully understood, the individual’s control over the behaviour becomes weakened. This loss of control may be the result of some pre-disposition, or due to triggers in their personal lives.
It is important to remember that gambling is ‘normal’. Although some people might have moral or ethical objections, it appears to be less harmful than many other activities such as alcohol consumption, except to some individuals who have a predisposition to developing an addiction and who can experience significant gambling related harms.
About a third of the adult UK population have gambled at least once a month on games other than The National Lottery, but only about half a per cent could be considered as problem gamblers (Gambling Commission, 2019).
Only around one per cent of gamblers who have experienced negative consequences due to gambling could be considered at moderate risk of developing a problem. By comparison around 80% of the UK population drink alcohol and of these up to five per cent are at high risk of dependence or are dependent already (YouGov, 2018).
Meanwhile, the official watchdog, the Gambling Commission, confirmed there had been a rise in some online gambling, but there was not yet any evidence of a rise in problem gambling. Despite an overall drop in gambling during the lockdown, the Commission said that across the industry there had been an increase in some customers playing online slots, poker, casino gaming and virtual sports. They also found that engaged gamblers were also spending more time and money during lockdown.
Time for a statutory levy
As a result of this upward trend in online gambling, the Commission has had increased calls for a levy to be placed on the industry, in order to help fund research that will identify and help reduce gambling related harms. As an academic researching gambling addiction, I would like to see more industry funding made available for research into the early identification of people at risk and possible interventions to prevent gambling becoming a widespread problem.
Delivering an effective strategy in order to reduce gambling harms requires surety and certainty of funding, to enable effective planning and delivery of long term objectives. A voluntary system, reliant on the goodwill of the industry, is an inadequate way to develop such a system. A statutory levy will provide an opportunity to deliver harm reductions by ensuring a fair, independent and trusted system, for developing effective prevention activities. Effective prevention in turn delivers societal benefits, through reductions in the social costs associated with gambling harms. A levy creates an equitable system by which all members of the industry contribute – thus helping to address the harms they generate.
The problem of gambling-related harm is here and is affecting people’s everyday lives. With the support of Government, we now need a continuity of funding, staffing and treatment to be guaranteed and this can only happen with a statutory levy.
Professor Richard Tunney is Head of Department of Psychology at Aston University