U.K. Authorities Launch Pilot Project to Ferret Out Problem Gamblers

Are some demographic groups more vulnerable to pathological gambling than others? To answer this question, officials in Manchester and Westminster in the U.K. have hired the research agency Geofutures to create maps that identify concentrations of at-risk individuals. If such “zones of the vulnerable” exist, pinpointing them micro-geographically could help government authorities make intelligent decisions about where betting shops and fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) should be located. In the words of Geofutures researcher Heather Wardle, this new survey will explore the concept of “area-based vulnerability to gambling” both locally (in the Manchester and Westminster regions) and nationally. If accurate and informative maps can be created from such work, the hope is that other municipalities will follow the Manchester-Westminster example and sponsor similar studies.

Gambling, Poverty and a Mass of Unanswered Questions

Citizens, politicians and public health authorities in Great Britain have become increasingly concerned about the sudden proliferation of gambling outlets within the nation’s borders. In particular, the spread of FOBTs has caused grave concern based on how easy these machines are to use and abuse. A recent study sponsored by the Responsible Gambling Trust (an industry-funded group, no less) revealed that 47 percent of regular FOBT players had difficulty controlling their gambling while using these machines. Meanwhile, health surveys in Scotland and England found that 22 percent of FOBT users (including both casual and serious players) were already problem gamblers or at risk of becoming addicted in the near future. With FOBTs proliferating—along with legalized gambling in general—municipalities in the U.K. have been holding public licensing hearings on a regular basis. Legislatures deciding whether to approve applications for new betting shops or FOBT installations have been hearing constant complaints from citizens who are fearful about the deleterious effects gambling outlets will have on their communities and neighborhoods. By jointly sponsoring this new Geofutures study, councilors in Manchester and Westminster are taking action in response to the fear and uncertainty. Like addiction experts, they are eager to discover if clusters of problem gamblers can be spotted and linked through demographic characteristics. With this information in hand, they should, at the very least, be better prepared to answer the questions their constituents are raising about what the spread of gambling means for everyone. Needless to say, poverty and problem gambling are an atrocious mix. Nevertheless, up to now entrepreneurs opening new shops have tended to congregate in deprived areas, where unemployment is common. This may sound counterintuitive, but financial problems (or realistic attitudes about their financial circumstances) don’t normally slow compulsive gamblers caught in the throes of irresistible urges. And those in dire straits may be even more attracted to gambling than most, dreaming of that one big score that could change their lives in a heartbeat.

Blaming the Victims?

The results of the Manchester-Westminster study aren’t expected until late summer. But the project has already been criticized. Detractors say Geofutures researchers are focusing too intently on the characteristics of gambling’s victims while glossing over the influence of the betting shop environment and the addiction-creating effects of the games or machines themselves. Instead of just asking “who?”, these critics say, the researchers should also be asking “how?” and “why?” What is it about the gambling experience that is pushing so many people over the line into helplessness and dependency? The Responsible Gambling Trust has long championed the strictly demographic approach to ferreting out the vulnerable. Some see this as a sleight-of-hand move designed to deflect attention away from the practices of the gambling industry as a whole, and the decision by Manchester and Westminster councilors to follow this model exclusively has raised concerns about their ability to comprehend the complexities of the situation. In an attempt to change the terms of the debate, a nonprofit organization called the Campaign for Fairer Gambling has sponsored a critique of the Responsible Gambling Trust’s work. The campaign’s hired experts accuse the group of ignoring evidence from peer-reviewed studies that suggest the whole concept of the “gambling-prone personality” has been overblown. They claim the Responsible Gambling Trust has studiously avoided addressing research showing FOTBs are insidious mind-warpers able to manipulate a broad range of users into gambling beyond the edges of their own self-interest. The best antidotes to problem gambling, the authors of this report argue, are universal, general restrictions on gambling activities that protect all citizens, not just those believed to be at the greatest risk of addiction.

Gambling’s Future Could Be U.K.’s Nightmare

Despite the limits of the upcoming Geofutures research project, the information it gathers should be quite useful to government officials as they struggle to come to grips with the ravages of problem gambling in the U.K. The focus of this project is limited and overly reductionist, as the Campaign for Fairer Gambling points out. But any data that could conceivably be used to help regulators control the spread of problem gambling is important and worth making the effort to collect.

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