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'Safer Gambling Week' is a cynical stunt—we need real change

Tim Cairns

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The past few days have marked ‘Safer Gambling Week’ – a PR stunt devised and funded by major betting companies in which members of the British public are encouraged to ‘gamble responsibly’.

This event may sound harmless enough. However, for those engaged in advocacy for gambling’s victims, it’s deeply cynical. This event is less about safety and more about Big Gambling pretending it has a heart. It doesn’t. Over the last couple of decades, this industry has done all it can to make its productive more addictive and accessible, so that it can exact all the money it can from punters. It has also opposed calls for accountability and financial contributions to help those worst affected.

There are some noticeable parallels between Big Gambling and Big Tobacco – an industry that has been reined in by the government amid increasing alarm about the harms of tobacco. Better regulation of the tobacco industry took time. For many years cigarette companies denied the harms of their product, despite being aware of them. Gambling promoters also tend to deny or downplay the dangers of gambling and shift the blame for harms associated with gambling to those experiencing them. Profits have risen exponentially and as they have, empathy has plummeted.

Big Tobacco manipulated its products to be addictive, and industry executives charmed the government to stop change and protect their profits. The same behaviour can be seen by major gambling companies today – who sweeten politicians with lucrative offers of sporting tickets and VIP treatment. As with smoking, the raw truth is that gambling kills. In the UK, one person takes their own life because of gambling every single day. Gambling is therefore a public health issue.

Whilst most people enjoy a flutter from time to time without any issue, an estimated 1.5 million people in the UK are locked into gambling addiction. For these people, gambling can have an awful toll on their personal lives, and the lives of people around them. 24-hour internet gambling has made the gambling industry free to manipulate vulnerable people out of cash 24/7.

Since the introduction of the outdated Gambling Act in 2005, Big Gambling has been free to target the public through widespread advertising, with little or no limitation. This has been compounded with the rise of VIP schemes and loyalty programmes, allowing addicts to be directly targeted.

Gambling lobbyists target sport in the same way Big Tobacco did – knowing the mass appeal it has to members of the UK public, and especially the next generation of potential customers. A Channel 4 documentary estimated that a person watching a Premier League football match could see a gambling logo onscreen over 700 times. Sport and gambling are now so interlinked that a gambling company was fined for having its logo emblazoned on a football team’s kids colouring competition. This toxic culture needs to change, for the sake of the next generation.

The UK Government has promised changes to gambling legislation. If gamblers are to be kept safe, ministers need to do for gambling what past governments did for Big Tobacco. Advertising needs to be cut and the gambling industry needs to be placed under a levy that is sufficient to properly meet the public health crisis it has inspired. At least five per cent of industry profits. The industry must be reined in to ensure that it is not free to target the vulnerable.

These issues need urgent government action – not more and more consultations. There’s a real risk that the Government will continue to kick the can down the road, as they have done for several years now. Safer Gambling Week is designed to blame people experiencing addiction for the harms they face – it encourages them to ‘be safer’. The gambling industry would have us believe that gamblers don’t act in a safe and responsible way, so their suffering is on them.

The reality is that Big Gambling has spent 20 years making their product more addictive, easier to play, and available 24 hours whilst ignoring pleas from suffering individuals. It is long past time that gambling was treated in the same way as tobacco. Only the government can bring in reform. It’s time for Ministers to show that they will no longer listen to a heartless industry, and instead pay heed to the people suffering because of its actions. It’s time for change.

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