Will Prochaska is the CEO of Gambling with Lives, a charity established by families bereaved by gambling related suicide. Here, he outlines why the narrative of 'Safer Gambling' could potentially do more harm than good.

Last week marked the end of Safer Gambling Week 2020. It was the promotion, led by industry, of supposedly safer gambling. Why ‘safer’ rather than ‘safe’ gambling is promoted is unclear. Across the week, gambling operators and their third sector partners came together - with the assistance of the Gambling Commission - to highlight the support available to those struggling with ‘problem gambling’ in an attempt to reduce gambling related harm.

The harm caused by gambling in the UK is staggering. According to a YouGov survey in 2020, nearly 20% of the UK population experience harm either directly or through the addiction of another. The Gambling Commission estimates that 55,000 children are already addicted to gambling in the UK with numbers rising.

Safer Gambling Week is based on a Safer/Responsible Gambling approach which places responsibility for the cause and remedy of any harm from gambling on individual gamblers. It begins with a narrative of ‘problem gamblers’ as rational individuals capable in engaging in corrective behaviours - for example by taking breaks, “tapping out”, setting time or monetary limits, self-excluding, or seeking help.

It ignores the reality that some gambling products carry addiction rates as high as 50% due to their structural characteristics, that the industry operates predatory marketing schemes that induce people to gamble beyond their means, or that children begin gambling because of their exposure to incessant advertising and marketing. It is akin to trying to reduce the risks of smoking without acknowledging that tobacco is addictive, or that the tobacco companies have any agency at all in the harm that’s caused.

Safer Gambling is a dangerous narrative that underpins much of the current education, prevention and treatment work in the UK. It ignores the reality that addictive consumption behaviours are associated with a behavioural “need” rather than a rational or willing “choice”. As such there is little evidence to suggest Safer Gambling education initiatives have a significant impact on behaviour change.

In fact, of deep concern is the growing evidence that Safer Gambling approaches actually lead to harm through stigmatising gambling disorder and reducing the likelihood that people will seek help. To make matters worse Safer Gambling stands in the way of a move to a public health approach which would protect people from the risks of gambling. It does this by obscuring the role of industry and of the state which should take responsibility for public health interventions such as stricter regulation, public health messaging, and commissioning clinically appropriate treatment.  

No wonder then that researchers have referred to ‘Safer’ and ‘Responsible’ gambling frameworks as a public relations coup for the gambling industry. On the eve of the review of the Gambling Act let’s hope 2020 was the last time we’ll see Safer Gambling Week.