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March 22, 2024
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Why we need a new Gambling Act

Earlier this week, a new gambling treatment clinic was opened in Sheffield. Although very welcome, ADPH President Greg Fell, who is Director of Public Health for Sheffield City Council, President of the Faculty of Public Health, Kevin Fenton and the Royal Society for Public Health‘s Chief Executive, William Roberts explain why the current approach to gambling needs to change to focus more on preventing gambling harm. 

One in every 12 people in the UK are affected by gambling harms. In England alone, hundreds of lives are lost to gambling every year, with many more experiencing poor mental and physical health and financial difficulties.

The distribution of these negative impacts is also unfair, with the greatest risk being experienced by minority groups and people living in the most disadvantaged areas. Meanwhile, children and young people are increasingly exposed to gambling products, not only causing harm now, but creating the next generation of consumers.

In 2022, the Association of Directors of Public Health and Faculty of Public Health wrote to the Government  calling for a public health approach to reducing gambling harms. Together with the Royal Society for Public Health, we then published a set of recommendations for change.

However, despite repeated promises, a white paper and a consultation by the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee, little progress has been made. It has been nearly 20 years since the Gambling Act (2005) established the Gambling Commission to regulate the industry which currently takes the form of self-regulation. Instead of effective regulation however, the industry sponsor education programmes, lobby parliament, give political donations and spend millions on marketing and advertising to ensure that their products are seen by as many people, as often, as possible.

This approach is not working and, with a General Election on the horizon, it is time, once again, to call for a new public health approach to tackling gambling harm.

All businesses exist to make a profit – gambling makes its profit by people losing money and experiencing harm. There can be no place at any policy-making table for representatives from an industry which profits from people’s harm. Instead, we need to create policies with people’s health and wellbeing at their heart which can’t be done when there are conflicts of interest at play.

Fortunately, we have a wealth of evidence from tackling other harmful products to learn from. For example, the introduction of restrictions on marketing and sales in tobacco has saved countless lives. Just as these – and indeed the current tobacco control proposals – have been developed based on evidence linking products and industry practices to illness, death and economic disruption, so too should evidence-based policies be developed to address gambling harm.

We have seen, for example, with alcohol, that industry-funded education resources have had barely any impact on consumption. We know too that ‘safer gambling’ slogans don’t reduce harm – in fact, they may even amplify a message that gambling is safe and fun.

While clearly there is a need to support individuals who want to stop gambling from affecting their lives, their behaviour is far from a result of free choice. Instead, it is a result of extremely effective marketing and a ubiquity of highly addictive and often harmful products in society. Sadly, by repeating messages of ‘problem’ behaviours, even in seemingly well-meaning behaviour change campaigns, it reinforces stigma and further internalises people’s ability to seek support, cementing that behaviour as the social norm. This creates a never-ending cycle of harm – and industry profit.

To effectively reduce harm, instead of placing responsibility with individuals – the approach supported by industry – we should be tackling the issue at source, with robust regulation on product price, availability and marketing and by excluding the industry causing the harm, or funded stakeholders, from the policy making process (we wouldn’t think it was ok that tobacco industry stakeholders influenced tobacco policy).

As well as learning past lessons, including the importance of harnessing the wisdom of those with lived experience, we should also look to the way other countries are protecting their populations. For example, in Monash, Australia, city leaders have introduced a public health approach to gambling harm with a raft of evidence-based measures.

Who develops and enforces a new strategy is another important point. Currently, the responsibility for gambling regulation lies with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). We propose that responsibility for regulation and reduction of harm is moved to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) who, in consultation with independent public health experts, can use their experience of legislating other harmful products to help develop a comprehensive public health framework to prevent gambling harm.

Meanwhile, an independent, regulatory body whose primary aim is to protect the public from gambling harm should be made jointly accountable to both DCMS and DHSC. The Combatting Drug Unit is a good example of where this type of cross-Government approach can be very effective with a wide range of Government departments cooperating on a shared agenda.

A robust national strategy also needs to be backed by effective local enforcement. Local authorities (LAs) already do much to reduce gambling (and other commercial) harms and have various levers at their disposal. The following ‘top ten’ local level interventions serve as an illustrative example of what prevention might mean in practice if LAs systematically used all the powers and levers available to them:

  1. The narrative – ensuring that awareness of gambling as a public health issue is embedded into the organisation, taking the emphasis away from personal responsibility.
  2. Planning – a commitment to use planning legislation to stop the development of new gambling outlets.
  3. Licensing – a commitment to considering the public health implications of licensing decisions and an adequately resourced licensing team who are able to enforce licensing conditions.
  4. Advertising and marketing – ending advertising and marketing of gambling products through council owned channels, including transport.
  5. Partnership and council sponsored clubs – stopping the use of gambling products on council owned land and in council organised clubs.
  6. Challenge industry funded networks of treatment and support – building on what we have learnt from alcohol and drug support services and extending the same approach to providing independently funded treatment and support for gambling, working in partnership with people with lived experience.
  7. Education that is free from industry funding – developing education packages that are entirely free from industry influence and resourcing the capacity to implement them.
  8. Ethical investments – challenging when schemes (eg council pensions) invest in harmful industries.
  9. Campaigns – resourcing and supporting campaigns that raise awareness using hard-hitting facts and evidence and reinforce public health messaging (as opposed to campaigns that aim to change individual behaviour).
  10. Trading Standards – investing in staffing, training, and resourcing for Trading Standards that is free from industry influence.

Implementing interventions like these, that use LA’s pre-existing powers, are however dependent on a wide range of factors and influences. In order for LAs to properly enforce national regulations and implement locally tailored solutions, they need more powers and responsibilities alongside adequate resources and funding – and the training and tools to be able to keep industry funded opposition at bay.

The current funding from the Gambling Commission is neither enough, nor equitably distributed. While a properly thought-through levy may provide funds, it is fundamentally unsustainable and risks causing more harm than good as it relies on the industry continuing to cause harm to raise money, fuelling a vicious circle of profit and harm. Instead, we need Government to commit to oversight and funding that can be distributed to local leaders who know their local areas and know what will work, with who, and where.

Our message to the next Government is clear: It is unacceptable that five million people in our country are negatively impacted by gambling every year. It is unacceptable that our children are continually exposed to marketing and advertising that normalises gambling, and it is unacceptable that we have, but aren’t using, tried and tested ways of tackling these commercial determinants of our health. Let’s now work together to develop a new Gambling Act and create a society where people are protected from the harms currently being felt by millions.

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