Is gambling a problem that is spinning out of control in Britain?
Who is gambling? Should we be concerned about the UK's gambling industry? Michael Savage asks The Big Question
Why ask that now?
The new Gambling Commission, set up to advise the Government on Britain's gambling industry, has released a report showing that the country has over 250,000 problem gamblers. The figure represents about 0.6 per cent of the adult population, the same proportion as was revealed in a study from 1999. The publication of the report coincides with the Government's new Gambling Act, which came into force at the start of the month.
The number of adults participating in some kind of gambling over the past 12 months has actually fallen compared to eight years ago. The report found that 68 per cent of adults, around 32 million people, had participated in some form of gambling over the past year. In the 1999 study, the comparable figure was 72 per cent of adults, representing around 33 million people. The result of the report led the Gambling Commission's chairman, Peter Dean, to optimistically conclude that there had been "surprisingly little change" in the number of people participating in gambling or in the number of problem gamblers in the UK.
Can we trust these figures?
The findings are seen as reliable by problem-gambling support groups and the gambling industry alike, as they were reviewed by two of the world's leading experts on the subject. But as with all statistics, scratching the surface reveals a slightly different story. In the main, the percentage of adults participating in some kind of gambling event has fallen because fewer people are playing the National Lottery, the nation's most popular gambling event by far. The proportion of people buying a lottery ticket has fallen from 65 per cent in 1999 to 57 per cent.
When the figures for participation in the National Lottery are taken out, the picture looks slightly different. Excluding the lottery, yesterday's report revealed that 48 per cent of the population had taken part in other forms of gambling, or around 23 million people. That was one million more people than in the 1999 study.
Who is gambling?
According to the report, the most likely people to participate in gambling are white men, from a higher income household. Men are still more likely to gamble than women, with 71 per cent taking part in some form of gambling, compared with 65 per cent of women. Bingo is an exception – it remains a mainly female pastime. In contrast, those most susceptible to becoming problem gamblers were people from vulnerable sections of society. Gambling addiction was found to be associated with poor health and having a problem gambler as a parent. It was also "significantly associated" with being black or Asian and having fewer educational qualifications.
How does Britain fare globally?
Britain's gambling industry is strong, but Brits are by no means the world's biggest gamblers. Although comparisons should be taken with caution because of the slightly different methods used to measure gambling addition, the UK is in mid-table. It has a similar rate of problem gamblers to Canada and New Zealand, but a lower rate than in South Africa and the United States. Hong Kong fares the worst: over 5 per cent of the adult population are problem gamblers. The UK's 0.6 per cent rate is modest in comparison.
So why the worries over gambling?
Because the UK's £91bn gambling industry is entering a new era as a result of the introduction of the Gambling Act, which came into force this month. Sweeping changes mean that casinos, betting shops and online gambling operators will be able to advertise on television and radio for the first time. Those opposing the Act suggest that this could lead to a growth in gambling addiction.
While gambling has not risen in the UK over the past eight years, the number and profile of gambling firms certainly has. There has also been an explosion in the number of online gambling sites. Gambling firms now have their logos emblazoned on the shirts of Premiership football teams and Formula One racing cars, and have also filled the void left by tobacco firms by sponsoring major sports such as darts and snooker.
Gordon Brown has already demonstrated his concern over the potential growth of gambling in Britain. While still Chancellor, he was known to be privately against the Government's decision to allow the development of a super-casino in Manchester. When installed safely at Number 10, Brown used one of his first Prime Minister's Questions to halt the plans.
And although the fact that there has been no rise in gambling addiction is good news, supplying help to those with gambling addictions is still a problem. The number of calls to GamCare's helpline, the UK's leading support service for problem gamblers, has been increasing year on year. It received 30,000 calls last year, up by a third on 2005. It has already received 40,000 calls this year.
There are many who remain silent over their addiction. The number of women seeking help has historically been low, and the organisation has been exploring other ways to reach them.
It's not just the person with the addiction who suffers. "Just like all addictions, it can affect entire families and those around the addict," said Nicola Crewe-Read, from GamCare. "In that way, many more people than the 250,000 problem gamblers have their lives affected by the issue. Now is certainly not the time to be complacent. We realise that we have a lot of work ahead of us."
Should this report calm fears about the Gambling Act?
In reality, yesterday's figures tell us nothing about the effect of the Gambling Act on our betting behaviour. Some major players in the gambling industry have been holding back from TV and radio advertising so far. It is only after this kind of advertising has been around for some time that its impact can truly be assessed.
Yesterday's report is important for another reason. The new figures will act as a benchmark against which government ministers and regulators can assess the impact of the liberalised gambling laws in the future. As a result, the really revealing study on the impact of the new gambling laws is still to come. Another study will be carried out in 2009 and 2010 – that one should give us a better idea about how the new Act has affected gambling participation.
Could there be a gambling boom in the future?
As with all big legislative changes, only time will tell what effect the new rules will have on the nation's gambling habits. While regulation is tighter and many large gambling firms have agreed to carry GamCare's helpline number on their adverts, the impact of larger casinos and increased advertising is unpredictable. But when the next analysis is made, yesterday's report means that we will have pretty reliable data to assess the impact of Britain's new gambling rules.
Should we be concerned about the UK's gambling industry?
Companies advertise for a reason – to encourage people to use their services
The full effects of the new Gambling Act have yet to make themselves felt
More people are now participating in forms of gambling other than the National Lottery
There has been no increase in problem gambling in Britain since 1999
The Gambling Act brings provides for greater scrutiny of the gambling industry
In international terms, the UK does not have a major gambling problem