Opportunities for gambling in Britain have increased very considerably in the last 20 years and were given further encouragement with the passing of the 2005 Gambling Act. The latest British Gambling Prevalence Survey, carried out in 2009/10, found that between one third and one half a million British adults experienced a gambling problem in the previous 12 months.
This represents a sizable public health problem similar in magnitude to the problem of the misuse of Class A drugs. It also indicated that prevalence had risen by 40 to 50% in the three years since the previous survey which was carried out in 2006/07. The survey did not include younger teenagers who are known to be particularly vulnerable to problem gambling. The numbers of people negatively affected by gambling problems can at least be doubled if we include a minimum estimate of an average of one other person, most probably a close family member, who is likely to be seriously affected in each case.
But, apart from the press coverage associated with the possibility of a Las Vegas style regional casino prior to the passing of the 2005 Act, there has been little media attention to the growth of gambling in Britain and the possibility that gambling problems may be increasing, and there has been a notable absence of public debate about gambling expansion. Attitude questions included in the 2007 and 2010 national surveys showed that, although the majority is not in favour of gambling prohibition, people are very conscious of the dangers of gambling. A large majority of people agreed with the statement that there are too many opportunities for gambling nowadays. We therefore believe Gambling Watch expresses the views of many whose opinions are not being heard. Political concern is also beginning to be expressed about particular issues such as the apparent proliferation and clustering of betting shops and the dangers associated with fixed odds betting machines.
What particularly motivated the proposal to set up Gambling Watch UK is the need for an organisation which would provide a space for critical reflection and comment on the growth of gambling in Britain. Criticism of the vigorous promotion of gambling by those who have a financial interest in promoting it, and of recent governments that have failed to show sufficient caution in support for the gambling industry, can be mounted on both the grounds that gambling produces harmful consequences for individuals, families and communities (the consequentialist argument) and on the grounds that gambling, particularly in certain forms, is not in keeping with values which the majority of the public wish to support (the values-based argument). It is difficult to find the space to present such views and to have them listened to respectfully as part of the national debate which we should be having. This is partly because there is no organisation speaking on the subject of gambling which is independent of government or the gambling providing industry. The Gambling Commission is an offshoot of government and is reluctant to propose stronger regulation. The main source of research funds is voluntary donations by the gambling industry and no way has yet been found to make the disbursement of those funds properly independent of the industry. The Culture Media and Sport Committee is currently reviewing the 2005 Gambling Act but is not showing itself interested in criticism of the status quo. There is therefore a need for an organisation which provides the space to challenge current policy and the apparently complacent attitudes which support it.