11 September 2023

Gambling addicts need help, not pointless red tape

By Abbie MacGregor

As the Government’s gambling white paper consultations come to a close, it is crucial that all Conservative MPs remind themselves what being conservative is all about. 

Before regulating anything, conservatives should be asking themselves what the precise problem is they are trying to solve, and the exact scope of the harm they want to address.

Gambling addiction is a problem which affects three in every thousand gamblers – a rate which hasn’t increased for 16 years. Meanwhile, the cost of regulation has increased year on year during that time, now totalling some £281m.

This is because the Gambling Commission – the industry’s regulator – classifies gambling ‘harm’ in the most tenuous way possible, including ‘those with no detectable signs of clinical harm or negative consequences’.

Andrew Rhodes, the CEO of the Gambling Commission, gave evidence to MPs in Parliament last week and has admitted that they have yet to define what ‘harm’ actually means, despite the fact this definition is guiding the white paper policy on gambling regulation.  

Consequently, the Government’s latest wheeze in year 17 is the idea of ‘affordability checks’, which is set to see thousands of healthy gamblers potentially forced to hand over bank statements or undergo credit checks, whilst pushing problem gamblers underground, making the solution to their problems even more remote and unreachable. 

Addiction is a clinical condition. It’s not simply an exaggeration of normal behaviours, like spending too much. An addict has a distinct set of clinical characteristics, such as preferring to give up a close friendship rather than withdraw from gambling.

The Government and the regulator’s inability to recognise this distinct difference, and understand the nature of addiction as a whole, has already condemned their reforms to failure. Their policies target the symptoms of addiction, rather than the causes, assuming everyone has the same capacity to become addicted. So why has the Government and the regulator chosen to ignore addiction recovery methods created by clinicians that already work for other addictions? Because it requires them adopt an approach those in power will rarely choose: to admit an issue is beyond their remit. –

Dr Robert Lefever, a world leading clinician who opened the first addiction rehabilitation clinic in the UK, is currently working with the Gamblers Consumer Forum, and has said that ‘addiction is not regulatable. It goes with the individual, not the substance or the process’. His damning verdict on the Government’s proposals was rather succinct: ‘Leave it to the professionals.’ Instead of regulating these people, we should be seeking to understand and help them.

The government faces a choice: continue along the path of complicated, expensive, burdensome and wholly ineffective policies like affordability checks, or address how we guide addicts towards the real and only solution: clinical treatment. 

Measures that temporarily remove someone’s ability to bet – like closing people’s betting accounts or forcing them to hand over bank statements – reduce one’s ability to bet, but do not in any way address their compulsion to bet. This is why affordability checks cannot possibly work; they don’t give you any information on the clinical signs of addiction, how to talk to your loved ones about your addiction, or where your local treatment centre is. Ministers have deluded themselves into thinking they can solve a clinical problem with non-clinical solutions. 

Lefever believes addictions are caused by genetic deficits in key neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine  – chemicals which flood the brain in response to something, from winning a bet to a bereavement. Only clinical treatment can confront these cognitive deficiencies.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing are regulators and ministers – totally unscientifically – inflating the definition of ‘gambling harm’ to apply to almost anybody. But they’re not doing this as a genuine attempt to reduce or help those with gambling addiction. If they were doing that, they’d be advocating clinical solutions. They’re waging war on an industry and a set of people they simply don’t like or understand.

Worse still, the government’s chosen path of ‘affordability checks’ will drive problem gamblers further to the margins, without getting the treatment they need.

Up to 63% of those with a gambling addiction also report a history of alcohol abuse or dependence. This fact wouldn’t be missed if gambling addiction was handled in the Department of Health where it belongs, and yet no one has yet to point out the absurdity of a clinical condition like addiction being discussed at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 

Ministers are, of course, right to want to do everything in their power to reduce the rate of addiction. But the question isn’t ‘how do we stop addicts losing too much money?’, but ‘how do we better promote proper treatment that would identify, treat, and manage addiction?’ As a result of asking the wrong question, we have a set of policies that not only will not work, but will serve as a distraction from the thing that will. 

There are, of course, other components to addiction apart from genetics, namely trauma and exposure, but the government is taking aim solely at the industry (the exposure element of the equation). This exposure-first approach does not answer a question that arguably underpins the entire debate on gambling reform: if the blame lies solely with the industry, or a ‘predatory product’, why are we not all addicted? 

To perpetuate the myth that everyone could be one bet away from addiction has birthed regulation that treats the British public as if they were a population of patients that require care and protection. If public health issues, from addiction to obesity and pollution, are ever to be properly tackled, it is vital we come up with proper solutions and provide metrics for success. Policy must always be guided by its robust effectiveness, rather than the appearance of virtue.  

The answer is rarely in compelling people through regulation. Some of the most successful addiction recovery methods, such as Alcoholic Anonymous, see patients make their own decision to ask for help. Conversely, some of the most unsuccessful non-clinical methods, such as minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland, have seen alcoholics risk malnourishment by displacing their food purchases to buy more alcohol. Until someone is willing voluntarily to take personal responsibility to seek clinical treatment, there is little their loved ones, bookmakers, the Government, or indeed clinicians can do. 

The worst thing that we can do for addicts and their families is remove that agency and personal responsibility via ill-conceived regulations, and give people false hope that somehow being forced to hand over a bank statement will rid them of their addiction. 

The Government has got days to change course, and it must do so for the clinical outcome of those who are addicted, and the personal liberty of those who are not.

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Abbie MacGregor is Head of Communications at the Gamblers Consumer Forum

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.