“Let’s Back our Boys and Bet NOW!”
“Bet in play NOW!”
The above exhortations, and others in the same vein, were made in raucous advertisements shown on live TV coverage just before kick-off and at half-time in England’s European Championship games this month. They were startling, attention-grabbing, and no doubt had people reaching for their credit cards. Given the high percentage of the population watching the matches and supporting “our boys”, I wager that the advertisements achieved their objective well enough. Does it matter? Is it just all good fun? Well, maybe. But this example of the continuing spread of gambling opportunities, and encouragement to gamble is in stark contrast to the more robust approach (albeit painfully and slowly developed) now taken towards other legal addictive behaviours, like smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.
The influential journal Addiction has this month decided to launch a series on National Gambling Experiences. The first and only article to be published is a challenging read (2). It describes how 10 years or so ago the New Zealand government shocked the gambling industry, legislators and all those involved in services by proclaiming that community and health considerations would predominate in the formulation of new comprehensive legislation on gambling. Sadly, or not, depending on your perspective, the subsequent legislative controls and their implementation were seriously undermined by a multitude of vested interests: those of the gambling industry, community projects dependent on financial support from the industry, and indeed the government departments dependent on revenue from taxation, amongst others. It seems that the demand for ever more gambling opportunities will not be denied.
Should gambling be treated as a public health problem, like alcohol and tobacco? If you think it should then the results of the New Zealand initiative are discouraging: The progression towards more and more gambling opportunities, more problem gamblers and consequent distress for many individuals and families, will continue. If, on the other hand, and backed by corporate vested interests, you believe that increasing greater individual choice and freedom is an overriding value in these matters, you may welcome defeat of the New Zealand reformers.
I find the New Zealand experience discouraging, but not unexpected in view of the many decades it has taken to control tobacco advertising; and even that is a continuing battle. Of course the case for gambling as a public health issue depends to an extent on its being viewed as an addictive behaviour on a par with substance use. Gamblers Anonymous decided the issue some 55 years ago, and Jim Orford’s pioneering book put the psychological case for gambling, and a number of other behaviours, several decades ago (2). With respect to gambling at least, the journal Addiction seems finally to have put that debate to rest (3), and we should welcome their decision, however belated it may be.