Time for a compulsory tax on the gambling industry, say academics

A new compulsory levy should be placed on the gambling industry to support people with gambling problems, according to a report published in the BMJ.

The paper also wants to see the 2005 Gambling Act revised and responsibility for gambling moved from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).  

A three-year strategy was recently launched by industry regulator the Gambling Commission to address gambling harms (DDN, May, page 4). However, less than £1.5m was spent in 2017-18 on ‘prevention activity’ in Britain, the paper says, compared to more than £9m in New Zealand, which has a population of 4.7m compared to the UK’s 66m. There is no ‘government-owned strategy’ to prevent gambling harm, and a ‘critical need’ to increase funding, it argues.

The extent and cost of UK gambling has been significantly underestimated, say the academics, and major investment is now needed to ‘alleviate the growing burden’ on society. There are currently 33m active online gambling accounts in Britain, with almost 60 per cent of the population having gambled on activities such as the National Lottery, slot machines, casino games or online gambling within the last year.

Around 340,000 people in Britain are estimated to be ‘problem gamblers’, with a further 550,000 at ‘moderate risk’. The harms associated with gambling can include serious financial problems, relationship breakdown, abuse or neglect of partners and children, and suicide, says the report. Estimates of the social costs of between £200m and £1.2bn are likely to be ‘considerable underestimates’, it adds, while prevention and treatment provision is ‘woefully under-resourced’.

‘Public health approaches to reduce harms related to gambling should encompass a range of population-based approaches supported by regulation, legislation and funding,’ the report states. ‘Simply stating that gambling is a public health concern is not enough. It must also be treated as one.’  While the statutory power to impose a compulsory levy exists, successive governments have been ‘unwilling’ to enact it.

Gambling Report co-author Professor Gerda Reith of the University of Glasgow.
Report co-author Professor Gerda Reith of the University of Glasgow.

‘As a society we need to face up to the broad environment that gambling harm is produced in – the role of the industry, as well as the policy climate that they operate in,’ said co-author Professor Gerda Reith of the University of Glasgow. ‘Gambling doesn’t just affect an individual. The impacts ripple out beyond them to their family, friends, communities and society. Not only does this have major implications for our health services, it is also a social justice issue. Gambling harms disproportionately affect poorer or more vulnerable groups in ways that can exacerbate existing inequalities. We urgently need a marked change in approach, and one that is long overdue.’

Gambling and public health: we need policy action to prevent harm at www.bmj.com