Earlier this month, Westminster Council and Manchester Council launched a joint research project in an attempt to map areas of high vulnerability and gambling-related harm. Mark Goodwin and Heather Wardle of Geofutures, both of whom had previously been commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT) for research on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), have been commissioned by the local authorities to carry out the study.
Councillor Tim Mitchell, from Westminster, said the catalyst for commissioning the research had been people attending license committee hearings and voicing their concerns about gambling premises. Cllr Mitchell said he had listened to local concerns, particularly from the Chinese community, as well as national concerns about gambling products, betting shop locations and the potential harm they cause.
It is hoped that the outcome of this research will enable local authorities to determine who is at risk of gambling related harm, as well as where they are located. Councillor John Longsden from Manchester added that: “The operators should be given this information to help them adhere to the licensing objectives”.
Councillor Kerry Simpkin from Westminster made clear that the research would not add to the national debate about betting shops, clustering or FOBTs, but would instead inform the work of local authorities across the country. This could be a missed opportunity to provide further insight into FOBTs and their potential for harm.
Crime is not part of the research brief either, despite the duty of local authorities to uphold the licensing objectives, one of which is the prevention of gambling-related crime. The extent of damage to FOBTs and money laundering might have been identified with access to the relevant data.
This research, as with the RGT research before it, continues to ask the wrong questions regarding FOBTs and problem gambling. Heather Wardle of Geofutures described the exercise as “exploring area based vulnerability to gambling”, which will identify different types of people who could be vulnerable, looking nationally and locally at data in order to put together a local authority level map.
While this could be useful for local authorities in considering license applications, Professor Rebecca Cassidy from Goldsmith’s University pointed out during a related question and answer session that it is difficult to make the necessary connection between those who are presumed to be vulnerable and gambling-related harm, especially if no data is being gathered on gambling expenditure.
Like the RGT’s study on FOBTs, this research is firmly rooted in the pathology based model – in other words, by singling out those who are believed to be vulnerable to gambling related harm, there is a tacit acceptance that problem and at-risk gambling is a consequence of an individual’s predisposition to it alone.
RGT’s research was recently criticised in an evaluationby Professor Linda Hancock of Deakin University in Australia, and Shannon Hanrahan, the Chief Executive of the Outcomes Group. They said that it “ignored over a decade of research” and failed to take a more internationally regarded bio psychosocial approach to understanding gambling related harm, which encompasses not just the individual, but also the influence of the gambling product and its environment.
The unsubstantiated notion that problematic gamblers must be only those who are predisposed to gambling addiction also limits the consideration for public health measures such as stake reduction, which could protect the whole population.
In spite of its approach, the RGT still found that 37% of loyalty card customers gambled problematically on FOBTs, which suggests a significant proportion of those that play FOBTs in betting shops are experiencing harm – even if they are not what one might consider “vulnerable persons”. As Professor Hancock and Mr. Hanrahan state in their evaluation of the RGT’s research: “This should be sounding alarm bells”.
The Health Surveys in England and Scotland cited 21.9% of FOBT players as being either problem or at risk gamblers. But approaching research from the perspective of the product and its environment, rather than through the prism of “problem gamblers”, would provide better insight for policy.
That said, Westminster and Manchester Council’s final report will be available in July 2015, and the Campaign looks forward to the results. This evidence will hopefully build a comprehensive picture of those that are most vulnerable and give local authorities the opportunity to protect them from gambling related harm.