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Gambling and social harm

Changing the way the UK addresses gambling 

In Britain, around 430,000 people have a gambling problem, with another two million at risk of developing problems. The growth of online gambling games and apps and their convergence with social media is increasingly normalising gambling and making it more accessible than ever before.

Professor of social and political science, Gerda Reith is changing the way gambling is viewed and measured in the UK. Five interlinked ESRC funded projects over a period of eight years revealed patterns in the evidence that showed gambling is better understood through lenses of social harm and inequality than from the longstanding view, from psychology, and of individual pathology.

Characteristics of problem gamblers

In 2006 Professor Reith and her team at the University of Glasgow and the National Centre for Social Research led a longitudinal study that tracked gambling patterns over a five-year span. Prior to this study, most gambling research had relied on prevalence surveys that do not account for the fluctuations in an individual’s gambling behaviour over-time, nor explored the social conditions that create behaviour change. This longitudinal study provided critical evidence for the growing body of work that began to shift understandings of gambling from being a problem of individual psychology, to an issue of public harm that both reflects and contributes to social inequality and deprivation.

The evidence gathered through the longitudinal study, in tandem with other research projects on the relationships between gambling and debt, crime, social networks and regulatory frameworks, showed that gambling related harm disproportionately impacts poorer socio-economic groups, often living in economically disenfranchised neighbourhoods. The study also suggested that people with precarious employment, not only low wages, also appeared to experience greater problems with their gambling than those with more stable and/ or higher income jobs.

Gambling in Glasgow

The unique nature of Glasgow’s history as a postindustrial city with a strong working class culture made it a perfect laboratory for the qualitative longitudinal study. During the course of this study Professor Reith was able to look at the difference in gambling patterns between higher-income areas in the city compared to lower-incomes areas.

Differences between male and female behaviours were also explored, suggesting highly gendered patterns in that women tended to participate in gambling in sociable, group games in venues such as bingo halls, whereas men were more likely to bet on more competitive games like dog races or sports. The team discovered high rates of intergenerational transmission of gambling. In some areas it appeared almost as a ‘rite of passage’ for a father to take his son for his first betting experience and a mother to bring her daughter to a bingo hall.

“ In the past decade, increasing liberalisation has transformed the climate of gambling in Britain, bringing the activity to greater numbers of people than ever before. However, despite the increased popularity of gambling, surprisingly little is known about the actual motivations, characteristics and lifestyles of gamblers and problem gamblers, and their relation to socio-economic and cultural factors. We  are investigating the fluid and dynamic processes involved in gambling behaviour, allowing an examination of the 'how' and 'why' of change over time.' Professor Gerda Reith 

Influencing Policy

Professor Reith points to the importance of recognizing the ways gambling harm is more likely to acutely effect those in working class neighbourhoods. A geospatial analysis showed that in low-income areas across the country betting shops, for example, are over represented: a pattern that is represented in streets lined by payday loan shops and pawn shops. With an increased focus on social harm there is a greater chance of influencing the licensing policies that contribute to the proliferation of this pattern.

In 2017 the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled gambling as a public health issue — and the UK is following suit. Professor Reith sits on two task forces that are creating seismic changes in the way gambling is treated regarding public health. The Gambling Commission recently established an expert group tasked with establishing a definition and measure of the harm that gambling creates within the UK. Its findings will act as a public policy indicator alongside recommendations to mitigate gambling related harm. Dr. Reith also sits on the Gamble Aware Campaign Board, with key figures from public health, which is formulating the development of the UK’s first ever public health campaign focused on raising awareness of the risks of gambling among the general population.

The harm created by gambling is much like those of other public health concerns such as obesity or alcoholism. Professor Reith says, “looking to the future, I’m excited to see the growing evidence-base shift the conversation around gambling in terms of both public policy and public health.”

“I believe that interventions focusing on licensing and regulation as well as treatment provisions could make a real difference towards reducing gambling related harm. I hope that more research, especially focused on online and mobile phone based gambling in young people, will continue to inform and create change in policy and health.” Professor Reith is optimistic that the evidence base her work has, and continues to, contribute to will have a positive effect on public policy and health campaigns tackling gambling in the UK and further afield.

About the researcher

Gerda is a Professor of Social and Political Science at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests lie in the intersections of sociology, political economy, public health and psychology, with a particular focus on the substantive areas of consumption, risk and addiction. She has written and lectured extensively on the empirical and theoretical issues around these topics, and her work has been translated into a number of languages, including Korean, Chinese, Spanish and Hungarian. Her previous book, The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture (Routledge) won the Philip Abrams Prize for the best book in sociology for 2000.