Gambling has changed a lot in recent years. Mobile apps give people unlimited access to the global betting market at the touch of a button from anywhere in the world. As the number of gamblers has increased, so too have bookmakers’ profit margins and the amount of problem gambling. Yet we still can’t say for sure how gambling and financial troubles are linked.
In the UK, the number of active online gambling accounts has risen from around 16 million in 2008 to 30 million in 2019. The Gambling Commission, an industry regulator for England, Scotland and Wales, estimates up to 300,000 people may be problem gamblers – gambling in a way that is disruptive or damaging to their lives. A similar pattern has been seen in other countries.
As a result, there is some pushback. The Gambling Commission is reviewing current legislation, has announced new restrictions on how online bookmakers can operate and there is talk of banning gambling advertising from sports shirts, reminiscent of when tobacco firms faced a similar outlawing.
But there is still much that we don’t know about the impacts of gambling.
As interviewing gamblers is time consuming and costly, much of the existing research relies on surveys of the most extreme gamblers. This is problematic for several reasons. Extreme gamblers are hard to reach and are likely to misremember or distort their gambling habits. Another issue is the assumption that the problems associated with gambling affect just a small proportion of the most extreme gamblers, whereas gambling researchers believe that lower levels of gambling may be harmful too.
Understanding the societal impact of gambling requires large-scale, objective data into the harms of gambling that, until recently, has been lacking. In our recent study, we looked at anonymised data from a UK bank of around 6.5 million people – of whom 40 per cent gambled – to see what financial, social and health outcomes disproportionately affect those who gamble over a period of 7 years. While not quite representative of the UK population, this is the fullest picture yet of gambling and its associated harms.
We found that people who gamble, even if it is with a relatively small amount of their monthly budget, experience a small increase in distressing financial outcomes, such as falling behind on their bills and mortgage or using a payday loan, than those who don’t. This risk increases with higher rates of gambling.
The relationship between gambling and harmful life experiences isn’t purely financial. By looking at the time of day that people spend money, we can tell that those who gamble are more likely to be awake in the middle of the night, a marker associated with poorer mental health. Gamblers are also more likely to receive future disability payments – measured by incoming welfare payments – and are more likely to lose their jobs in the future. We also find that all levels of gambling are associated with a higher mortality rate, for men and women, young and old.
Though none of these correlations prove causation, gambling does appear to be closely linked to negative outcomes in people’s lives. This suggests that a public health approach – such as an advertising ban – could reduce harm. Targeted approaches, such as allowing people to enable gambling blocks on current accounts or limiting the amount that can be gambled, would also be beneficial to people with higher levels of gambling.
We will only know if these approaches work through a large-scale randomised trial. It is time we found out.
Naomi Muggleton is at the University of Oxford and Neil Stewart is at Warwick Business School
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