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Gambling policy: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part six

Published by techadmin on 10 Mar 2014 , 12:00 AM

In the penultimate part of Right Casino’s interview with Dr Mark Griffiths, we look back at the history of gambling legislation in Britain. Dr Griffiths explains why Britain has historically shown a liberal attitude towards gambling and suggests about how government policies could be updated to ensure a healthier, fairer gaming sector in the future.

Interview transcript

Right Casino: We’re going to move onto the question of gambling policy in Britain. To start with, how would you summarise the British government’s policy to gambling over the past fifteen years? You’ve mentioned the ideological stance that Gordon Brown took on gambling. Do you think this is representative of the way that the British government has treated gambling in recent decades?

Dr Griffiths: Yes, but the interesting thing if you look at it over the last fifteen years as opposed to one incoming prime minister at one point in time, it’s quite clear that there’s been a policy of basically liberalisation [and] deregulation. I think what you see around the world is that governments have woken up to the fact that gambling is a fantastic way to raise the state’s coffers in a way that people don’t see that you’re raising taxes. You put taxes on gambling [and] people don’t see it as a tax.

The irony is of course there are some forms of gambling that [people] claim to be regressive forms of taxation. A lottery for instance. Most people, all the research points to the fact the lowest socio-economic groups that spend far more of their disposable income playing the lottery. Therefore a disproportionate amount of taxation goes back from those that can at least afford to do it.

Right Casino: Tax on the poor basically?

Dr Griffiths: Yes. I mean there was a lovely Viz. You know how Viz have their top tips. You know they had tip for John Major, [who] was the prime minister at the time. It was something like, ‘why don’t you have a tax on everyone that’s innumerate and call it the national lottery?’

That’s the thing you see, people just really don’t understand – sorry I’m trailing off of policy. People just basically don’t understand what one in forty million actually is. Giving somebody the odds, which you should do in terms of being socially responsible. But you would get better odds of Elvis landing on the moon the back of the Loch Ness monster. I mean one in forty million.

We’ve done surveys. A lot of surveys have been done showing that people think if they put the same numbers for the rest of their life on the national lottery their numbers will come up at some point. That is a tribute to public innumeracy in terms of not understanding what one in forty million actually means.

But anyway, going back to policy. The basic British policy has been to liberalise and to deregulate mainly because it’s a way of bringing in extra money and it doesn’t affect the typical base rated tax that people are paying. Now I personally think that in terms of things like super casinos and more gambling opportunities you will see more and more happening. The bottom line now is that there are so many debates about whether there should be more bookmakers on the high street. I do court case after court case in terms of betting shop applications.

Now the thing is, adding one more betting shop in an area where there are six already makes no difference to problem gambling, particularly when people have got hundreds of bookmakers on their mobile phone or in their home or work place. The fact is that [a] offline high street bookmaker has far more in terms of protective social measures than anything online. That’s why I just think the arguments are null and void about the opening of more and more offline opportunities because there are just masses online.

But really the whole policy has been what I call the drip, drip, drip effect. Occasionally you get these little bumps where at the moment there’s a lot of talk about reducing the number of betting shops in the high street. This looks like it’s an anti-gambling policy. Hillary Benner has recently said it’s even not about – he just wants to see a reduction because he says the high streets don’t look very good for having bookmakers in it. It’s not even an argument about causing problems. He’s just saying that high streets shouldn’t have bookmakers because they don’t look very good on the high street.

But the policy is and it will continue to be liberalisation and deregulation until of course something happens where there’s a public backlash. You get these cycles of prohibition and deregulation. You see it with alcohol. You see it with drugs. You see it with gambling. It’s amazing what happens around the world.

For instance like Canada, they pour more money into gambling research, gambling education, gambling prevention than any other country in the world that I can think of. It all started when basically a senior minister’s son in one particular jurisdiction tried to commit suicide because of his gambling problems. Of course that was in Quebec.

So Quebec said right, we’re going to put $10 million aside for research into gambling for treatment and prevention. As soon as Quebec put $10 million Ontario said, well we’re going to put in $12 million. As soon as Ontario put in $12 million British Colombia said, we’re going to put in $14 million. There’s so much competitiveness between the states as being seen as doing something good. People like one of my colleagues for instance have published a lot of papers. He’s moved over to Canada because they’re awash with money for research prevention and education.

I mean that’s an example where one event is going to kick-start a whole sequence of having a country that is very well funded for researching in this area.

Right Casino: What do you believe is the government’s primary agenda in regards to gambling legislation? A 2010 deluxe study revealed the industry generates seven hundred million pounds a year in taxes and presumably that’s increased with the proliferation of things like mobile gambling. Is the government’s primary concern when it legislates in ways that restrict the gambling to protect players or are they simply trying to generate taxation?

Dr Griffiths: Like I’ve already said most governments are aware that if you basically tax gambling lots of money comes in and that’s why most countries – now obviously Britain is no different from that in the sense that people want to gamble. We’ll legally provide gambling opportunities for them to do so but we’ll also take a cut of the profits you make.

Having said that the Gambling Commission will say that we’re not going to allow this to happen unless we can show it isn’t an avenue for crime, that children and vulnerable people aren’t exploited, that harm minimisation and player protection measures are in place. I don’t think the government would want to do anything where it negatively impacts on society.

All these decisions they kind of make a cost benefit analysis of the positive versus the negatives. I personally believe that in most gambling situations the positives outweigh the negatives. If that wasn’t the case we wouldn’t have mass gambling everywhere.

The bottom line is that most people who gamble do not have problems. Most people who drink alcohol don’t have problems. That’s not to say that those small minority don’t occur and that we shouldn’t think about protecting those vulnerable and susceptible people.

Right Casino: How do you interpret the debate between pro-gambling lobbies and those people in organisations calling for further impositions and restrictions on the gambling industry? Where do those voices come from and what kind of positions do they tend to take?

Dr Griffiths: The thing is any consumptive industry whether it’s nicotine, whether it’s drinking, whether it’s gambling you’ll always get people who are diametrically opposed in terms of whether we should be offering this product or this service to the nation as a whole.

Obviously in terms of the kind of anti-gambling lobby a lot of it comes from either religious beliefs or beliefs that are founded on personal experiences of people [who] have undergone that. I think we live in a mature society now and that gambling has always been around. Trying to for instance limit it or basically prohibit it means it just gets taken underground. I think we have a very mature attitude that the vast majority of the British public if you include the lottery do gamble. Even if they might not think they’re gambling we quite clearly are more of a nation of gamblers than not a nation of gamblers.

Obviously we know that in terms of the gambling lobbying industry there are lots of connections between government departments and I think what’s quite interesting I’ve twice been on the All Party Gambling Scrutiny Committee. There are – last time I went up before them I think there were twenty one members and eighteen of those members held directorships of gambling companies, were non-executive directors of gambling companies lobbied on behalf of the gambling industry. It just seems to me that in terms of potential for corruption to happen people can look at that and say the only people sitting on this committee are those who have a vested interest in the continuance of the gambling industry. But having said that if the public really didn’t want lots of gambling opportunities you would find that at the ballot box basically. The bottom line is that most people don’t have a really strong opinion on whether gambling should be – I think most people wouldn’t want gambling to be prohibited. It’s a knee jerk reaction that wouldn’t serve anybody.

Having said that we are living in an age where people can gamble more on lots of different things that we never imagined when legislation was first introduced. When in the last National Lottery Act came in I think nobody could foresee mass Internet gambling, gambling via mobile phones, gambling on interactive television. I mean legislation always seems to be two steps behind technological innovation. Obviously with technological innovation that’s usually about increasing the participation rates in gambling somehow and therefore we do have to have what I would describe as responsible gambling measures in place to help minimise the harm.

Right Casino: Now in your work and in this interview you’ve already acknowledged concerns surrounding fixed odds betting terminals but you say they certainly shouldn’t be banned. Could you please explain this position for us?

Dr Griffiths: I don’t believe any gambling – I don’t think any form of gambling should be banned unless there is scientific evidence that it affects far more than it…again it’s positives and negatives.

The point is, fixed odd betting terminals are located within bookmaker shops or occasionally within some casinos, okay? These are dedicated gambling environments. You can’t walk into a bookmaker and not expect gambling experiences and gambling products to be offered for people to play.

Now obviously the debate around fixed odd betting terminals is that people can lose huge amounts of money in very short amount of time. The bookmaking industry believe it or not have listened to these concerns and I know for a fact because I’ve just redrafted the Association of British Bookmakers Code of Conduct on social responsibility. Anyone who now wants to be a member of the Associated British Bookmakers will now have to put limit-setting fixtures on its fixed odds betting terminals, which will mean that people have to make a pre-commitment in terms of how much they’re prepared to lose in both in terms of money and in terms of time. Now to me this seems an ideal situation.

Now the thing about most forms of gambling is when you’re in the midst of gambling, when you’re actually there gambling, is that rationality goes out the window. The adrenaline is pumping. You feel completely different than when you make a cold decision and you step back and make a decision. Most people who pre-commit say ‘I don’t want to lose more than £50 a month on a fixed odd betting terminal.’ In the very near future they will be able to, on a fixed odd betting terminal, set the limits that they are prepared to lose. Once you reach those limits you can’t play them anymore.

That doesn’t stop them then going to another shop and gambling there. Of course in any of this kind of situation you’re only as strong as your weakest link. But to be honest you can play fixed odds betting terminal type games on the Internet all day long. You can self-exclude from one site and just go onto another. People have got to take some responsibility for their own gambling actions. My concerns are is that I wouldn’t be advertising fixed odds betting terminals in the middle of Coronation Street. I just want a sensible advertising and marketing policy around particular forms of gambling.

We know that based on what I said to you earlier is that the structural characteristics of an FOBT are such that vulnerable or susceptible people will increase the chances they could develop a problem with that type of game because it’s something you can play over and over and over again. But that’s not to ban them. Loads of people play slot machines, play fixed odds betting terminals [and] have no problem whatsoever. Banning just isn’t the way forward because there would just be an underground market for FOBTs. People that want to play them will find other places to play them. It’s about the industry taking more responsibility in terms of protecting [players and] knowing that their product – I mean it’s a bit like alcohol. Every alcohol bottle has the percentage proof on it and gambling has to do the same. They have to make people aware of all the potential problems so that people can make an informed choice about whether they want to play them in the first place.

Right Casino: That segues quite nicely into the last question. Gambling advertising has come under a lot of scrutiny over the past year. The EBC reported on a Coral advert being inadvertently screened on a children’s television channel. You can’t even watch a football match these days without being bombarded with gambling ads during intervals. Who do you think should take responsibility for this sometimes unethical advertising? Gambling operators or the media? And following on from that, how do you think the government should be looking into regulate gambling advertising?

Dr Griffiths: Okay, there are a number of issues there. The first thing is we have very strict guidelines that the advertising standard authorities set out. The Gambling Commission also have their own set of guidelines about what should and shouldn’t be in particular adverts. For instance, nobody under the age of twenty five is supposed to be in an advert. There should be nothing about that gambling will solve life’s problems in any way. For instance there was a particularly, what I think despicable campaign that was running in France. Eric Cantona was the front for the Partoosh Company and their strapline is ‘Bet to Forget.’ Now for me that is just socially irresponsible in terms of what gambling should be about.

We had one recently in this country, the health lottery. All the adverts, there was a lot of complaints about it. It said mortgage? What mortgage? With the health lottery advertising. Again the idea that gambling is going to solve all your financial problems should never be used in adverts.

Now I’m a believer that we live in a grown-up, mature society. I personally believe that the gambling industry should have a right to market and advertise their products but it should be done in a way that kind of looks at scientific evidence for associations of problems with those particular activities. For instance there’s no evidence that the National Lottery causes any problems at all really. You get the odd person that maybe spends too much in terms of the amount of tickets. But really there shouldn’t be – I’m happy to see the national lottery advertised in the middle of Coronation Street. It’s a discontinuous form of activity that doesn’t tend to cause problems. I have more problems for instance having scratch cards advertised.

The interesting thing is – this is a true story – In 1996 the home office produced a document. It was a consultation document and they defined the idea of this difference between hard and soft gambling and it was particularly related to advertising. Basically they were saying is that the situation we’ve got now with the lottery is that‘ll allow soft forms of gambling to be advertised on television. The definition of a hard form of gambling and I mentioned it earlier, basically the hard gambling was defined as any activity that involved high or rapid staking.

Now I wrote to the home office and I said to them I’ve just seen your new definition of what a hard form of gambling is and by that definition scratch cards are a hard form of gambling yet you’re advertising it through every program on ITV in a typical night. They wrote back to me and said, ‘Dear Dr Griffiths, thank you for your letter. I can assure you that scratch cards are not a hard form of gambling because they are sold in respectable outlets.’ So I wrote back and said does that mean you could put a roulette wheel in Tesco it suddenly becomes a soft form of gambling? Of course they didn’t bother to answer that particular one.

The idea that where you sell something defines what is a hard or soft form of gambling is ludicrous. But in terms of advertising we’ve now got a situation because of the Gambling Act that’s the one major difference people will have realised from the Gambling Act is that the freedom to advertise loads of different forms of gambling activity is widespread now. If you sit down tonight, if there’s not a football match on TV what you’ll get is that before ten o clock loads of adverts for online bingo then after ten o clock loads of adverts for online casinos and online poker. Obviously targeting women before the ten o clock watershed kind of thing and men after the ten thirty watershed.

In adult programming I haven’t got a problem, okay? But my kids now, they’re typically up until nine o clock, I don’t think they should be bombarded with adverts. I do think in terms of advertising and marketing is that it can be advertised to adults in arenas where adults would normally be doing things but my own personal opinion is it shouldn’t be in a situation where lots of children and adolescents can watch it.

Right Casino: We’ve already ascertained that you feel it’s socially irresponsible to advertise gambling at times in which underage viewers might encounter gambling advertising. Do you feel at the same time gambling brands are socially irresponsible when they advertise on the billboards, at major sporting events, which are broadcast during the day when children might see them?

Dr Griffiths: Well, the thing is at the moment we have a loophole and a lull, which means that even during the day if there’s a major sporting event companies like Bet 365, William Hill and Corals can advertise their gambling products in before and during a football match.

Personally I don’t think that is right. I know I’ve got three children myself. I don’t like it that they’re bombarded with gambling advertising. The thing is they’ve got a father who is a professor of gambling studies and I can actually explain to them the ins and outs of gambling. For instance we had a situation recently where my son did say to me that he said that Van Percy was going to score a hat trick for Man United in this particular game and he did. He said to me if I would have put the bet on that I would have won whatever the amount of money was. I said what about all the times you said to me that Rooney was going to score? I went through all these things. The thing is you’re only remembering the one that you would have won. This is what happens with gambling all the time.

Now the thing about things like billboards at sporting matches, you’re not going to stop that. My guess is that most people are really watching the game rather than watching the electronic adverts that are flashing across the billboards. Same with when you’re watching the game hopefully most people are watching a game rather than the adverts there. Sport and betting are inextricably linked. You can’t stop it. If you look at for instance when Manchester United I think were sponsored by Vodafone at one point and were discussing how Vodafone and online gambling services could be linked to the Manchester United faithful. Those kinds of linkups are going to happen more and more. Obviously a lot of gambling firms sponsor football clubs. There is a little bit concession there is that football clubs won’t sell a children’s shirt that’s got a gambling sponsor on it. That’s not to say that the children can’t see who’s the gambling sponsor. Some of them might not even realise are a gambling sponsor. Here in Nottingham we have Victor Chandler supporting Nottingham Forest. My guess is that most kids don’t know that Victor Chandler is a betting outlet.

The thing is you can’t stop this and there has to be some parental responsibility here in educating your children. But I personally and I’ve said this for a long time, gambling’s an adult activity. If we’re going to advertise and market it, it has to be to adults. For me I think an easy way to start won’t eliminate it but after the nine o clock watershed would be a good place to start.