Thursday 14 March 2019

If more gambling laws are the answer, what's the question?

From The Guardian...

People with a gambling problem are 15 times more likely to take their own life, according to the largest study of its kind, prompting calls for swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction.

... Campaigners said that if the same results were applied to the UK, the Swedish study would indicate around 550 suicides a year in which gambling played a part, or more than 10 per week.

That would be one in ten suicides, if true. Perhaps it is true, I don't know, but the article rightly points out that the causes of suicide are 'very likely to be multi-factoral' and that it is 'hard to isolate the role played by gambling'. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were only 21 suicides between 2001 and 2016 (ie. 1.4 per year) in which gambling was mentioned on the death certificate, but this is bound to underestimate the true number.

When Tracey Crouch MP resigned last year on the (false) premise that the government had delayed the clampdown on fixed-odds betting terminals, she claimed that two people kill themselves a day due to gambling problems. The Regulus blog tracked the source of this figure down to a 2010 study from Hong Kong...

The research project examined 150 cases of suicide in Hong Kong and found that 17 of the victims (or 11.3%) were “probable pathological gamblers”. Applying this rate to suicides in Great Britain provides a figure of 674 deaths.

How very scientific...

Still, it is at least interesting that the estimate from Sweden is fairly close to the Hong Kong estimate. Moreover, as the Guardian points out, it seems to be more reliable because of its large sample size and is more suitable for extrapolating to the UK because of the similarity between the two countries' problem gambling rates...

But the study in Sweden is much larger than that of the Hong Kong research, took place over a longer period and monitored people who took their own lives as well as those who did not.

It is also based on a country with a similar prevalence of problem gambling to the UK at around 0.5% on the often-cited problem gambling severity index measurement, rising to around 1.6% when including people at moderate risk.

No doubt The Guardian is right to say that the study has prompted 'calls for swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction'. It is, after all, open season on gambling since the government capitulated to Derek Webb and his boys at the Campaign for 'Fairer' Gambling. But what do these figures - if accurate - tell us about gambling regulation?

Hong Kong has a state-sanctioned monopoly on horse-racing, football and lotteries. Casinos are banned, and so is online gambling. Gambling is nevertheless extremely widespread both legally onshore and across the water in Macau as well as on the $12 billion illegal market. As in China, where nearly all gambling is illegal, rates of problem gambling are high in Hong Kong. When the 2010 study mentioned above was written, problem gambling prevalence was around two per cent

Sweden also has a state monopoly for gambling and fairly tight regulation, but not as tight as Hong Kong. There are only four casinos in the whole country and you have to be at least 20 years olds to get in them. Unlike Britain, there have never been any fixed-odds betting terminals. Unlike Hong Kong, it legalised online gambling years ago. According to The Guardian, it has a problem gambling rate of around 0.5 per cent and - if the studies are to be believed - a similar rate of gambling-related suicide as Hong Kong.

Britain has a relatively liberal gambling market. It has no state monopolies on gambling, unless you include the lottery. Casinos are legal and, though limited in number, accessible to most people. Bookmakers and FOBTs are accessible to all (until next month). Online gambling has always been legal and is widely advertised. It is one of a small number of countries to have gambling products that children are allowed to play. As The Guardian says, it has 'a similar prevalence of problem gambling' to Sweden and a much lower prevalence than Hong Kong.

What, exactly, are we supposed to learn from these real world case studies about the optimal level of gambling regulation? Sweden and Hong Kong regulate gambling quite strictly and have similar gambling-suicide rates despite having very different problem gambling rates. Britain regulates gambling in a comparatively laissez-faire manner and yet has a much lower rate of problem gambling than Hong Kong and the same rate of problem gambling than Sweden. Moreover, the rate of problem gambling has not risen in the last fifteen years despite significant liberalisation and the emergence of new gambling products, including FOBTs and online.

And yet we need 'swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction'?

So let me get this straight. Britain should clamp down on gambling because if we extrapolate the gambling-suicide rate from Sweden, a country that regulates gambling more harshly than Britain, we get a figure that is nearly as high as if we extrapolate it from Hong Kong, a country that regulates gambling even more harshly?


And - plot twist! - Sweden doesn't actually have a problem gambling rate of 0.5 per cent. Academic studies and official government surveys suggest that the real figure is much higher than that of Britain at around two per cent.

Maybe these countries should be learning from Britain?

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