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The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board’s advice on the National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms 2019–2022

The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board’s advice on the National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms 2019–2022

  1. Contents
  2. Part 2: The extent of the problem and lessons learnt

Part 2: The extent of the problem and lessons learnt

Gambling-related harms impact on people’s resources, relationships and health.6 Negative effects can include loss of employment, debt, crime, breakdown of relationships and deterioration of physical and mental health. At its worst, gambling can contribute to loss of life through suicide. Harms can be experienced not just by gamblers themselves. They can also affect their children, partners, wider families and social networks, employers, communities and society as a whole.


For example:

  • work and employment
  • money and debt
  • crime etc.


For example:

  • partners
  • families and friends
  • community etc.


For example:

  • physical health
  • psychological distress
  • mental health etc.

The traditional practice of assessing the extent of gambling-related harms by reference to problem gambling prevalence rates can be misleading and hence lead to inadequate action.7 Prevalence rates fail to capture a number of important dimensions of harm, including those experienced by others than gamblers themselves. It could be even more misleading to assess the success or otherwise of a strategy by reference to changes in problem gambling prevalence rates. It is possible for substantial changes to happen in the nature or extent of gambling-related harms, in either direction, without any change in problem gambling rates. As new forms of online gambling are developing rapidly, keeping pace with the scale of change and possible harms becomes ever more of a challenge. It also makes comparisons over time, across jurisdictions and across different forms of gambling more difficult.

We suggest therefore that the new strategy moves away from a focus on problem gambling prevalence rates. It should instead have the objective of reducing gambling-related harms significantly.8

A programme to begin assessing these harms in a coherent way now exists.9 It is likely to be some time before it produces significant results. It would not be surprising, however, if it revealed considerably more harm associated with gambling than is currently recognised.

Despite their limitations, the problem gambling prevalence figures make disturbing reading:

  • there are currently thought to be around 340,000 adult problem gamblers in Great Britain10
  • approximately 55,000 children aged 11–16 are also thought to be problem gamblers11
  • a further 550,000 people are estimated to be suffering moderate harm.12 Others may suffer lower levels of harm from time to time
  • the proportion of regular customers of the gambling industry likely to be suffering harm is significantly higher than those who only gamble occasionally. 8.4% of people who gamble twice or more a week are classed as suffering moderate harm, and 4.5% are problem gamblers.13 Problem gamblers often exhibit very low levels of well-being.14 Yet they are amongst the industry’s most regular customers.

These statistics make it difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is a serious and pervasive issue to address, even without taking into account the harms that problem gambling prevalence rates do not capture and despite the much-quoted stability in such rates. The figures relating to children are, or ought to be, particularly disturbing. Changes in approach are needed if progress is to be achieved.

Lessons from the current strategy 2016–19

We have published reports at the end of each year of the current strategy giving our view on progress. Our April 2018 report15 concluded that progress had been made in relation to a number of the priority objectives set at the beginning.

  • work on more systematic identification of the nature of gambling-related harms and ways of measuring them has begun
  • much more data is available. We know more about, for example, the amounts people stake and lose on certain products. (But see later about ease of access to these data)
  • many operators now have access to algorithms which are likely to be useful in identifying problematic play. (But the inherent lack of transparency in proprietary systems makes it hard to assess the sensitivity and specificity of the screens; and they are only of value if followed by effective interventions)
  • some operators have started testing new ways of intervening with customers likely to be suffering harm. (But these pilots are not always effectively evaluated for evidence of what works)
  • a number of operators have begun to try to develop a greater understanding of how games are played and of the characteristics which might lead to more harmful play.

Progress has, however, been partial and/or disappointingly slow in many areas. In particular, there has been a big gap in much of the industry between rhetoric and performance. Regulatory actions have brought to light too many examples of patterns of play which ought clearly to have caused concern failing to trigger appropriate action.16

There are a number of lessons for the new strategy from the experience of the current strategy, taking these and other factors into account:

  • there were too many priority actions in the existing strategy. It would be better for the new strategy to identify fewer priorities, and to ensure they are effectively actioned
  • more emphasis is needed on the nature of harms and how we achieve harm reduction, and less of a focus on problem gambling rates
  • there needs to be an effective overarching strategy for nationwide delivery of treatment services, and clear ownership of the issue by the GB health departments and public health agencies
  • in retrospect, the approach to prevention was under-specified and too piecemeal. Prevention needs a coherent, overarching strategy of its own, within which it is possible to set realistic and appropriate priorities
  • placing too much emphasis on voluntary action does not achieve the desired impact or pace. The Gambling Commission needs to provide direction and/or guidance to push things forward, with activities co-ordinated and prioritised
  • despite the (limited) evidence of some operators piloting new initiatives to reduce harm, there has not been enough meaningful evaluation of what works
  • the arrangements for commissioning research have been significantly improved over the period of the current strategy. But there remain a number of problematic issues – the less than automatic availability of data, the length of time it takes some projects to be commissioned, and funding arrangements which have discouraged some researchers from seeking funding opportunities because of what they see as ethical difficulties and potential or perceived conflicts of interest17
  • we do not understand enough about specific population groups, for example young adults and minority ethnic groups, nor about how best to support some of those who might be most vulnerable to harm18
  • very little research has focused on women and gambling. The number of women who are problem gamblers is lower than that for men. Sample sizes in surveys are therefore often too small for meaningful analysis of gender (or other) differences. It could be wrong to assume that women experience harm in the same way as men, or that they are most effectively supported in the same way.19
  • the current strategy called for greater public engagement to inform the development of interventions to prevent harm and treat those suffering it. Very little action has been taken to bring this about. In particular, there has been very limited use of ‘experts by experience’ – those individuals, their families and friends who have personal experience and whose voice is critical to finding solutions and co-producing new ways of reducing harms.


6 Measuring gambling-related harms, a framework for action, Gambling Commission, RGSB, GambleAware, November 2018. Public Health England will shortly start some work on this topic.

7 What’s the wellbeing problem with problem gamblers (opens in a new tab) What Works Centre for Wellbeing.

8 Despite its limitations, the existing practice of measuring problem gambling prevalence rates should continue as it still provides useful, if narrower, information on the scale of the problem.

99 Building on the ‘measuring gambling-related harms’ paper published in November 2018. It includes work funded by the Gambling Commission to understand the available methods to collect and analyse relevant data on harms.

10 Gambling behaviour in Great Britain in 2016, Health Survey England (HSE), Scottish Health Survey (SHeS) and the Wales Omnibus, 2016.

11 Young People and Gambling 2018, Gambling Commission, November 2018

12 Gambling Behaviour in Great Britain in 2016. The confidence interval for the estimated number of moderate risk gamblers in the population is 0.9% to 1.5%, meaning we can be 95% confident that the true estimate of moderate risk gamblers in the population is somewhere between 420,000 and 710,000.The term ‘moderate risk’ does not refer to people who might become problem gamblers, but to those who are already suffering a moderate level of harm. The impact of internet gambling on gambling problems: A comparison of moderate-risk and problem Internet and non-Internet gamblers. Gainsbury, S. M., Russell, A., Hing, N., Wood, R., & Blaszczynski, A. (2013). Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 2013 and Measuring the Burden of Gambling Harm in New Zealand, Browne et al Ministry of Health, 2017

13 Gambling Behaviour in Great Britain in 2016, Health Survey England (HSE), Scottish Health Survey (SHeS) and the Wales Omnibus, 2016

14 An economic and social review of gambling in Great Britain (opens in a new tab), David Forrest, The Journal of Gambling Business and Economics, 2013

15 Two years on: progress delivering the National Responsible Gambling Strategy (opens in a new tab), RGSB, May 2018

16 Disappointingly, many of these failings have affected some of the largest, and most well-resourced operators, who might have been expected to be best placed to make significant progress

17 Encouragingly, however, GambleAware’s latest call for innovative research proposal elicited 23 bids, including some from institutions and individuals who have not bid before

18 Though there might be some useful insights about these groups to be gained from areas other than gambling studies

19 Some treatment organisations, such as Gordon Moody (opens in a new tab) have recognised the need to develop services specifically designed to meet the needs of women

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Part 1: Introduction and executive summary
Next section
Part 3 - Prevention
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