The Problem with “Problem Gamblers”

In the bad old days,  among the cruel behaviours of teachers was to make a child sit facing a corner and wear a hat with ‘Dunce’ written on it. If that didn’t make  them learn and behave properly, a child could expect a thrashing for their irresponsible waywardness.

More progressive education renamed ‘dunces’ as ‘problem children’.

Now, of course, in more enlightened times we speak of ‘problem schools’ as the main reason for between a quarter and a fifth of school leavers being functionally illiterate after eleven years of education. It has been a great leap forward for  society to recognise that the ‘problems’ may have something to do with the education system itself.

This month (July 2020) has seen the UK government launch a ‘war on obesity’. Proposals include advertising bans, stopping two for one incentives on junk foods, public health campaigns, taxes on industry, education, more help from primary health care and so on. There are critics of all this. They say that people should be able to eat whatever they want to, they are free to make their own choices and shouldn’t have that freedom removed by the nanny state. Parents, they say, have the right to feed their children whatever they like. The fact that unhealthy, fattening food is cheap should not stop poor responsible people making sensible meals with basic nutritious items such as turnips: if they can afford widescreen televisions and smartphones , they can afford to eat well. But such is the devastating impact on health and the economy, the state is now proposing to get tough, go beyond voluntary industry actions and the good sense of consumers.

After decades of denial the tobacco industry accepted that their product was both addictive and highly detrimental to health. Stringent government action has seen a huge fall in the number of people smoking.  A total ban on advertising and marketing, removal of branding on cigarette packs along with reference to tar and nicotine content which some took to allow for a choice of ‘safer smoking’, severe annual rises in duty, a ban on smoking in public places, and the hiding from sight of tobacco products in shops. Alongside this, smoking cessation programmes are free to everybody. Individuals remain free to use tobacco if they so wish.

These days, at the tobacco counter in a shop, the tobacco products are screened from sight. (It’s worth noting that alcohol is still freely on display, but that’s a different story for now). At the front of the counter, inches from the customer are advertisements for the National Lottery and a range of scratchcards priced from £1 to £5 each. Like sweets placed at a supermarket till they make impulse purchases more likely. They’re also an indicator of how normalised respectable gambling has become. A website called warns the public that ‘it can actually be quite hard to win one of the top prizes.’ It advises that to increase your chances you should buy scratchcards in bulk.

The Myth of the ‘Responsible’ v ‘Problem Gambler’

Unlike smoking and obesity, the risks associated with gambling aren’t associated with physical health (except in the many tragic cases of suicide). Gambling risks include financial ruin, turning to crime, family and relationships breakdown, mental illness. Many sources of information refer to the incidence of gamblers running into such conditions is ‘only’ 0.5% of the adult population (the same way as ‘only’ 0.5% of the the population are schizophrenic). There are other figures for children and young people, and for adults ‘at risk’ of being in the 0.5%. Data is never simple. It isn’t always available. It’s a snapshot of a previous period in time. It requires interpretation – and these interpretations differ. But if the 0.5% figure is taken as it is, given the personal suffering indicated above, plus the damage to immediate others such as family, plus societal costs is not that alone reason to give gambling damage the same weighting as a serious mental disorder such as schizophrenia? And unlike schizophrenia which, although it can be managed and treated well, in many cases very difficult to treat and manage, are not problems associated with gambling more easily attenuated using the approaches we have seen with tobacco, and beginning with junk food?

Yet it’s sometimes implied that if there are only 300,000 or so people in deep trouble because of gambling, that’s all right. They didn’t stop when the fun stopped. No one made them spend much more than they could afford: they were irresponsible. It was down to their having that much-cherished freedom to chose, but making the wrong choices. Many millions more enjoy the fun of a flutter. The appeal to the ‘millions who safely (and responsibly) enjoy a flutter’ is something of an industry catchphrase, and it needs unpicking.

Having placed the ‘problem gamblers’ into a sort of pathological ghetto, the logic goes that everybody else is a ‘responsible gambler’, enjoying a harmless flutter. This isn’t so.

In all our lives fortune rises and falls, and this is more nearly literal in the case of the regular happy flutterer. A regular bettor or gambler will win some, lose some, and for the great majority, over time will lose more than they win. Winning £25 on a £5 scratchcard won’t compensate for the many weeks of getting into debt with rent or power or council tax after buying four such cards each week. The strain on marriages and families will increase as essential money leaks into slots or online gambling. The wage packet won’t be spent on days out with the kids or new school clothes. Things will be pawned, payday loans become essential as credit is refused elsewhere and credit cards are maxed out. Loans from friends and family go unpaid. There may be catastrophic times, perhaps a threat of eviction or repossession, survived only by a hair’s width and that survival with ongoing negative financial consequences. (Sometimes, such a catastrophe can be the impetus to stop gambling). Anxiety, depression, arguments may go with the territory. The danger of becoming one of the statistics in that ‘problem gambler’ ghetto may increase. As it is, there are many whose quality of life is negatively affected by gambling, and they don’t show up in the statistics.

Now obviously, this is painting a bleak picture. Not everybody who enjoys a doughnut or two will incur an obesity-related illness. Most people do spend money responsibly and can enjoy a harmless flutter. There is, of course, even for them a risk of going beyond the harmless flutter. Even somebody new to betting and gambling can (not will) spiral down to dangerous levels.

What’s needed is research into the ‘twilight zone’ of gambling-induced harms. This is an area which has to involve personal testimonies of experience over time. It’s especially important in relation to young people who have been nurtured in a normalised gambling environment. It may lead to a more nuanced understanding of the scale and nature of gambling harms than that offered by dominant narratives of ‘problem gamblers’ versus the rest of us.