There has been no shortage of reaction to the publication of the UK government’s gambling white paper earlier this year. From both sides of the debate; pro and anti-gambling, journalists, members of parliament, members of action groups and many more have voiced both concern and support for the proposals.
One voice that rang prominently through the noise was that of the medical community. So often, gambling and its associated addiction risks, are forgotten to be first and foremost a mental illness, a dependancy and a crutch for life problems.These can lead to the worst possible outcome; the government estimates that there are between 250 and 650 gambling-related suicides every year.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the medical community opted to speak out upon the publication of the white paper. But what did they say about it? Let’s dive in.
The White Paper was launched by the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport in April of this year. The 268-page document set out key proposals that it would look to implement into law so as to make the practice of gambling safer. The primary tenets of the new framework were:
- Affordability checks – imposed background checks for punters who lose £125 net over a month, or £500 over a year and more detailed checks for those who make a net loss of £1,000 in a day or £2,000 over 90 days
- Stake limits for online casino games – Likely to be limited across the board to between £2-15 per spin. However, the UK Gambling Commission will also consult on slot-specific measures to give greater protections for people aged 18 to 24, including such options as: a £2 stake limit per spin, a £4 stake limit per spin, or a somewhat customised approach based on individual risk.
- Advertising and promotional limits – Much of the public’s betting is done through enticement by free bet adverts. These will be curbed, so too well gambling company sponsors on shirts.
- A statutory levy paid for by gambling companies in the form of a financial donation to fund gambling addiction treatments.
Right off the bat, NHS England responded to the white paper. It served as an official recognition of the government’s efforts to tackle the problem which it said it has been having to deal with unaided for years.
NHS Mental Health Director, Claire Murdoch said of the legislation:
“The NHS has long called for action to tackle gambling addiction which destroys people’s lives – I have personally heard of countless examples of people bereaved by gambling addiction or who have contemplated suicide – so I am delighted that the Government has committed to tackling this cruel disease.”
She continued, “While the NHS is treating record numbers, with almost 50% more referrals last year compared to the previous year, it should not be left to the health service to pick up the pieces left behind by a billion-pound industry profiting on vulnerable people, so I fully endorse the statutory levy set out in today’s White Paper and look forward to reading the proposals in detail.”
Murdoch’s response, in essence, outlines the feelings of the medical community pretty accurately; why should they have to spend so much money and time treating those who suffer at the hands of gambling companies?
It’s a point that was echoed in a haunting Guardian op-ed around the time of the white paper’s publication by Dr Matt Gaskell, a clinician running an NHS gambling clinic. In the piece, Dr Gaskell said that, “the levy is not enough: we need to prevent the harm in the first place, and the white paper falls well short of doing that.”
He added that the UK Government Whitepaper’s action on slots, proposed to be limited to between £2-15 should be lowered across the board to £2 in order to create the potential for a meaningful reduction in harm.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists, too, issued thoughts on the white paper, its efficacy and its shortcomings.
In a note posted on the body’s website back in April, Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones OBE who serves as its chairman commented that the white paper should have done more to reflect the “reality” of gambling harm as a “serious public health issue.”
Professor Bowden-Jones continues: ““Today’s smartphones and other digital platforms make gambling easier than ever, significantly increasing the risk of developing a gambling disorder – a serious mental illness, associated with significant depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
“While the publication of the Government’s White Paper is a step in the right direction, the scale and pace of the proposed changes are disappointing and represent a significant missed opportunity to fully tackle the harms associated with gambling.”
She added that there was also a “pressing need” for independent research to better understand the prevalence and impact of problem gambling across the UK and to identify the most effective measures to prevent gambling harm among different groups.
In her sign-off, Professor Bowden-Jones said that the college would be looking to influence a strengthening of the proposals during the consultation period.
Which, coincidentally, is due to come to an end later this month. Eight weeks of debate and influence by leading figures on both sides of the debate should, in theory, give us the white paper in its near-finalised version.
Clearly the gambling industry will need to alter many of its current practices to make gambing safer and reduce the risk of gambling addictions rising ever higher. Concerns noted by Dr Murdoch and Professor Bowden-Jones demonstrate that for the all the public positioning and praise that the issue is finally being addressed, it has gone far too far already and is likely to be years off practical efficacy.
Another interesting wrinkle will be how a potential Labour government will treat the bill should it pass before an election they could win in 2025.
It’s hard to imagine a party with such an outspoken dedication to building public services, particularly in regards the health system, shelving the issue for a later date.
On the other hand, maybe the delay to acting on gambling harms is bi-partisan and the industry will remain incredibly profitable and potentially dangerous for years to come.