A new context means a new approach to advance the debate on gambling reform

Posted On: 
7th May 2019

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling's Matt Zarb-Cousin reflects on the successful campaign to reduce Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) stake levels to £2 per spin and sets out how the campaign to reduce gambling related harm will continue going forward. 

"Campaigning successfully against FOBTs therefore required an overhaul of how the role of gambling products was perceived in the context of inducing or exacerbating harm. The evidence showed that not all gambling is the same, some products are more addictive than others, and FOBTs were the most harmful"
Credit: 
PA

When philanthropist Derek Webb established the Campaign for Fairer Gambling (CFG), his main concern was with Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). In 2013 CFG established Stop the FOBTs, a campaign to reduce the maximum stake on these highly addictive machines to £2 a spin. Last month, the Government enacted this precise policy. It’s unusual for a campaign to achieve its exact objective, and the question of what happens to once insurgent single-issue campaigners when they suddenly represent the consensus view is a welcome issue to have to resolve.

I started campaigning against FOBTs in 2012, before I met and teamed up with Derek. At that time, gambling-related harm was widely regarded by policymakers as the consequence of somehow “faulty” individuals. The dominant “responsible gambling” paradigm located the cause of harm in “irresponsible” or “reckless” behaviour, marginalising the impact of marketing, access and addictive or harmful products. There was great resistance by not just the betting sector but the entire gambling establishment - including the regulator and the Responsible Gambling Trust - to the notion that the product, including the maximum stake, can have an impact on levels of harm.

Campaigning successfully against FOBTs therefore required an overhaul of how the role of gambling products was perceived in the context of inducing or exacerbating harm. The evidence showed that not all gambling is the same, some products are more addictive than others, and FOBTs were the most harmful. Winning this argument in the media, with the public and with politicians has led to something of an intellectual revolution in the key bodies of the gambling establishment, including in the Government, at GambleAware (formerly the Responsible Gambling Trust) and within the Gambling Commission. The regulator’s shift away from a player-centric to a more all-encompassing approach to harm prevention is exemplified by their new strategy’s departure from the “responsible gambling” paradigm in favour of advocating “safer gambling”, which is targeted primarily at gambling operators.

This paradigm shift means gambling businesses can no longer deny the real danger of levels of harm, or that the solution may be in limiting stakes on certain products. Remote gambling operators have no choice but to engage constructively with this new consensus on meaningful solutions that will significantly reduce the sector’s unsustainable reliance on people experiencing disordered gambling. Their alternative is obsolescence.

Gambling operators know they need to adapt to this new context, which means we have to adapt as well. When the key institutions of the gambling establishment all agree on there being real dangers and are receptive to meaningful solutions, we are no longer insurgent campaigners but stakeholders who can engage constructively in policymaking.

There are now many different ways we can do this. Labour is putting together a new Gambling Act, and has already committed to introducing limits to gambling products online. The All Party Parliamentary Group on FOBTs has rebranded as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm and is looking into online gambling as part of a new inquiry. Powerful groups such as Gambling With Lives are emerging, giving a voice to previously voiceless bereaved families, and advancing the evidence of a link between gambling addiction and suicide.

With the support of Derek Webb, I will carry on working with these entities and with the media to inform the debate, as well as continuing my involvement with the development of blocking software Gamban, which recently won Reg Tech Provider of the Year at the Gambling Compliance awards. If a need for a campaign on a single issue arises, and if the landscape means an insurgent campaign is the most effective means for achieving a specific objective, then we will put one together. But I am optimistic about what can be achieved in the short term without that.

It was alleged during a Channel 4 News debate I took part in that i was deliberately misleading viewers and was funded by the casino industry. The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) and its CEO Malcolm George have now agreed to pay me costs and undisclosed damages for libel. The full statement in open court can be read here.

They could have apologised straight away but instead it took a hugely expensive and protracted process for them to admit I am not funded by the casino industry. This was an allegation that had been subsequently repeated on social media and risked harming the campaign against FOBTs. The ABB and Malcolm George have also admitted that it was false to say that I was willing to mislead Channel 4 viewers. I am relieved that these false allegations did not impact on our ability to achieve the objective of a cut to £2 a spin.

Those benefitting from remote gambling, and those acting on their behalf, should realise that misleadingly attacking critics or opponents will not help them generate the outcomes that they desire.