Public health and gambling regulation

By Rob Burkitt | 13 March 2018

Gambling is unlikely to fill the complaints inbox of either councillors or regulatory services. Unlike alcohol-related issues, it is much less visible and consequently for many, largely ignored as a matter for investigation.

Despite this, the latest industry statistics reveal there are almost half a million problem gamblers in Great Britain and two million people at risk of harm.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Problem gamblers affect those around them, the organisations they work for and the state services they use to treat their symptoms. There are some four million people whose lives are affected by problem gamblers. Big or small, every local authority has its share of problem and at-risk gamblers.

Gambling regulation is a tripartite system. The Gambling Commission and licensing authorities, financed by fees from the industry, work together to ensure compliance with the regulatory framework at a national and local level. Government is able to make changes to the framework – such as variations to the stakes and prizes on gaming machines.

For many people this latter issue is the one with which they will be familiar. The stakes and prizes on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in betting shops has become a lightning rod for more widespread public and political concerns about gambling and in particular its impact on those vulnerable to harm.

A government consultation, recently closed, includes proposals to reduce the stake on these machines to £50 or below. In a similar vein, the Gambling Commission has recently launched a consultation proposing changes to the regulations for gambling operators relating to marketing and advertising, unfair terms and complaints and disputes. This follows the Commission’s challenge to the biggest gambling firms in Britain to raise and speed up their game in keeping customers safe from gambling-related harm and creating a market that the public can trust. The Commission also warned that operators who fail to protect the public risk their long-term future in the industry.

Local authorities also have a vital role to play and this year presents an important opportunity to ensure the protections available to their own citizens are maximised.

Licensing authorities are required to produce a statement of policy for gambling and review it every three years. The next one must be published in January 2019.

Rather than consulting on a change to the date of the existing policy, licensing authorities can use this as a significant step in ensuring operators offer the best possible protections for consumers, particularly those who are young and those vulnerable to harm.

The statement is a vital tool for authorities in the event that gambling operators are non-compliant. It is the locally specific matter they have to observe when they carry out their licensing, compliance and enforcement work.

For example, unlicensed family entertainment centres and gambling premises which have very low stakes gaming machines, can be accessed by under-18s without an adult accompanying them. An authority may wish to ensure that all such premises have Criminal Records Bureau vet their employees and that staff are required to report any children they suspect of truanting. Or, that each gambling premise is required as a condition of their gambling operator licence to produce a local risk assessment for that particular site. Authorities are able to make clear the details of what they expect to see in this assessment, for example, consideration of the proximity of addiction clinics, schools and colleges or crime hotspots.

One local agency which can make a valuable contribution to the statement is public health.

While not listed in itself as a responsible authority under the Gambling Act, there are a wide range of innovative local initiatives now under way which are supporting this engagement.

Recently, the Commission, the Local Government Association, Public Health England, Welsh Local Government Association and Public Health Wales wrote to the respective directors of public health to recommend this course of action.

The letter explained that public health teams are likely to have an excellent understanding of the range of health issues within a local authority and how they interrelate and where they are concentrated, which can help licensing authorities.

There is an emerging consensus that gambling issues should be regarded as something which falls within the public health field in the same way as issues like obesity or substance misuse. As noted above, gambling issues tend to be less obvious than other health-related matters and, as extensive research shows, are under-reported and almost always not screened for by frontline staff.

However, given the range of co-morbidities with other conditions, it is safe to assume a significant number of those with whom public health engages on one issue are likely to also suffer from gambling-related problems.

It is hoped that through interventions like this, developing an active and meaningful statement of policy and continuing to strengthen the co-regulatory structure of gambling, we can ensure consumers and young and vulnerable people are offered the protections from harm they require.

Rob Burkitt is policy development manager at the Gambling Commission

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