The Trouble with Gambling Statistics

The Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, Michael Dugher, wrote in PoliticsHome on 9th January 2021:

When the Government announced before Christmas that it was kicking off the Review of Gambling, they did so with a “call for evidence” and they rightly said their determination to drive big changes will be “evidence-led”.  This is something I strongly support.  

Ministers made it clear that the percentage of problem gamblers in Britain stands at approximately 0.5 per cent of the adult population – comparatively low by many international standards – and that “this rate has remained broadly steady around or below one per cent for the past 20 years”.

The headline of his article calls for facts not fiction. He cites as facts that there is an ‘anti-gambling lobby’ who are ‘prohibitionists’ intent upon promoting ‘hysteria’ around gambling.

Facts are tricky things. So are statistics, data, ‘evidence’. Regarding the latter we published an article which raised some big questions about evidence during the campaigns to have the stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals reduced from £100 to £2. What was then the industry body, the Association of British Bookmakers, demanded ‘evidence that the machines were harmful with £100 stakes.

Evidence is not an innocent word. You can find or not find evidence for anything depending upon your perspectives and agenda. The big government and other machines for gathering evidence use models of gathering data. Interestingly, perhaps an admission of a failure of previous figures and ‘facts’:

This was in response to a recent House of Lords committee report on the gambling industry. Further, :

It would seem that neither the government nor the Gambling Commission have faith in the widely promoted ‘fact’ that ‘problem gamblers’ represent ‘only’ 0.7% of the population. A 2020 YouGov survey suggested that the figure is 2.7%. Quite a difference. When is a fact not a fact?

Aside, for a moment. The prevalence of the serious mental health condition called bipolar is estimated to be 2%. Should we say ONLY 2%? Not worth bothering about. Another fact to bear in mind in this aside is that with mental health diagnoses, three pyschiatrists may give three different diagnoses. And the diagnosing of mental health conditions varies between nations and different cultures. Further, it is clear that different sections of populations are more likely to receive particular diagnoses.

Returning to gambling harms:

So, even with current official figures, young people seem to represent a higher prevalence of harms than the general population. The young people of today are the adults of tomorrow and perhaps youth behaviour suggests worrying future trends in the near future.

While there are worrying indicators of increased exposure to gambling harms for women, the majority of people who face harm are men. Whole population figures do not remotely reflect the scale of the harms because they take an average which includes a gendered majority who face no harms.

Individual populations such as young people (which really needs breaking down to gender, ethnicity, social class, mental health conditions, educational attainment, religion, indices of poverty and deprivation) provide unuseful statistics as they don’t focus upon groupings within the individual population.

There are particular populations which require specific attention to them such as ethnic minorities, religious affiliates, LGBQT citizens. ‘Official’ attention to essential factors such as health, mental health especially, exclusion, exploitation, poverty, inequality and discrimination tends to be weakened by an institutionalised ‘whole population’ approach, the whole population being some vague collections of ‘normalised’ people. Of course, and it can’t be emphasised too much, that within ‘official’ institutions much progress is being made to remove this attentional blindness. What is most exciting is the ‘bottom up’ work of campaigning by minority groups, so often against the odds.

That report by the way shows that 4% of those surveyed were in prison because of gambling. Certainly, we have to move well beyond rather empty claims that the prevalence of gambling ‘disordered’ individuals in ‘the population’ is 0.5% (a figure which in any case is almost certainly a significant underestimate even using the outdated models previously used by the Gambling Commission and others). There are man, many populations within ‘the population’, and many individuals in each.

Stigma and the Invisible ‘Addiction’

We are currently working on a project around stigma and gambling. Stigma is the cause of much of the extra anguish to add to the pains of suffering from gambling harm. It leads to shame, guilt, and a fear of admitting to problems or seeking help.

When your GP routinely asks you about your drinking habits you may lie, give a lower or much lower figure than your actual intake. You don’t want a lecture perhaps, but more than this you are ashamed about how your drinking is ‘out of control’. Ashamed, because only weak people are not in control of their behaviours. Ashamed because you are now outside the norms of decent society. Ashamed because, whatever the success of anti-stigma campaigns, you carry within you, have learned, that ‘addicts’ are bad, worthless, irresponsible. The felt stigma will vary between individuals but some groups will feel it more. A Muslim will have violated their religious and community codes for instance. A woman is likely to feel strongly the stigmas against female ‘drunks’ and ‘alkies’ and ‘lushes’: women are ‘supposed to be@ good mothers, home makers, protectors of children.

You can do all the high-poered, expensive, expert data gathering, analysis and statistical interpretation you like. You won’t be able to include figures for the unknown population of people suffering badly but who feel impelled to keep it to themselves.

Gambling Careers

There has been a welcome move towards valuing the voices of ‘Experts by Experience’ – in health generally and mental health specifically. (It is still not obvious to too many by the way that suffering from gambling harms is a mental health condition. We have a long way to go before health institutions not only stop talking about ‘mental health and addiction services’ but also incorporate a clear understanding into their core values and outlooks). Promisingly,Experts by Experience are involved in a dynamic involvement with health services, professionals from many fields, politics, shaping policy, media. Many individuals go on to find work in the ‘recovery’ field. Others volunteers support groups and peer to peer mentorships. Many are involved with campaigning – and some say that such involvement helps their own recovery.

There is another crucial point to focusing upon the individual. As we saw above, there are many different populations of gamblers, and no such thing as a blank-faced ‘problem gambler’ occupying a ghetto called ‘problem gamblers’. At individual level, the need to think of the whole-person should be obvious. Sensitivity to a woman’s experiences is useful with caution; but much greater sensitivity to that particular human woman is more important. We have to take away the boxes we put people into, the labels we use, the blinkered views our pre-judgments may entail. We have to be sensitive to life story, life situation, health, co-occurring harms such as substance dependence syndromes. What we can never do is think of AN addict. To label someone is to dehumanise them. To label someobody with the word ‘addict’ is horrible. It’s a word loaded with negative, highly stigmatising violence. If we have to use the word at all – as we will do as long as there are ‘mental health and addiction services’ – we should strike it through. ADDICT.

During an individual’s gambling career there will be enormous variations between people. Some may gamble only on certain occasions but do so in a way in which they can severely harm themselves and others. Some may go weeks, months, years without gambling and then ‘relapse’. Others gamble every day and lose every day. Some turn to crime to fund their gambling. A person who has rarely gambled may bet on a certainty one night and los etheir home. An old person may become ill with cold and malnutrition because she spends a good part of her meagre pension on scratchcards. Faced with trauma, redundancy, depression or just boredom someone may turn to gambling – for the experience of gambling is itself an escape into a sealed-off world where anxieties cease. A person with bipolar, in a manic or hypomanic phase may gamble recklessly. (It’s estimated that bipolar individuals have a 50% greater risk of gambling harms than the general population). A gang of of mates drinking and betting fiercely on their mobiles as a football game proceeds on television may introduce to gambling the new member of the group who wants to ‘fit in’. All the kids in school are gambling, your parents are gambling and you want to be grownup.

There is no typical career. But it should be said that a relatively casual ‘low risk’ gambler can hit the buffers at any time when conditions are there. Glasgow University Gambling Research Group is currently engaged in a three years project talking to many individuals about their ‘gambling careers’. The study does make use of the term ‘problem gamblers’ which is a phrase that carries with it some unfortunate negative connotations; however, it understands that there are very many gambling behaviours and harms, and degrees of harm, the crucial importance of individual life factors, so implicitly undermines any concept of a typical ‘problem gambler’:

Rather than viewing problem gamblers as a relatively small and distinct group, the study will look at problematic behaviour as a particular phase that can affect many more individuals at some point(s) in a gambling career, and will examine the way that behaviour waxes and wanes among this larger group.  It will focus on key moments and processes of change such as, for example, how people begin gambling, points when playing increases or decreases, when individuals realise they have a problem and decide to seek help – or not – and the circumstances that surround this. 

Experiences of treatment:  perceptions of its benefits, as well as relapses and reasons for leaving it, will also be explored. Given that the vast majority of problem gamblers never seek treatment, the research will focus in particular on the phase of ‘natural recovery’ in which problematic behaviour is resolved without formal intervention, and will explore shifts in social, demographic and personal circumstances that are associated with it.

This article has tried:

  • to demonstrate that the government and the Gambling Commission are seeking new ways to gather a better and more accurate view of the prevalence of gambling harms.
  • to suggest that calls for ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ are based on innocent and naive misunderstandings, or else are being used as rhetoric against the ‘hysteria’ of ‘gambling prohibitionists’.
  • to sketch out some of the crucial differences between population studies versus the experiences of individuals.
  • to outline some of the issues around the term ‘evidence’ and show that it is by no means a simple ‘innocent’ word.

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