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PROBLEM GAMBLING SPOTTING THE PROBLEM ONLINE R


emote gambling has raised particular concern among researchers into problem gambling, because it’s so easy to access and can be so immersive. But there’s


also a positive: by its nature, remote gambling activity is very easy to monitor, so individuals with problems can be identified and helped. The UK harm-reduction charity GambleAware asked


PricewaterhouseCoopers to investigate how this might be done, and in 2017 PwC came up with a list of factors that could contribute to a “customer-specific risk score”. These included individual demographics; general behaviour


(such as size of bets and day of the week); preferred gambling products; and specific actions such as the customer’s response immediately following a win or a loss. Operators could start building a score at sign-up, then


improve it steadily as transactional data amassed; after three to six months it would have “strong predictive capability”. Certain “trigger” actions could also allow operators to identify likely problem gambling as it actually happened, allowing intervention such as messaging to the consumer.


World of difference


The unsurprising answer is that it differs among countries. In broad terms, it seems that around 0.5-4% of the population in most nations has a gambling problem, with somewhat higher figures found in China and South Africa. At the extremes are 0.5% (Denmark and the Netherlands) and 7.6% (Hong Kong); in between those, European figures are generally lower than in the US. Demographics also differ, but it seems that men are more


likely to suffer than women, and younger people rather than older ones – but that’s only on average. It does not mean that there are no elderly female problem gamblers. So, faced with a challenge like this, what are policy-makers and the industry to do? There are options for treating problem gambling or minimising the harm associated with it, which we’ll discuss later, but clearly the ideal would be to prevent it occurring in the first place. This is not an easy solution, however, because the causes


are still a subject of debate. At the most fundamental level, there’s disagreement over whether problem gamblers are substantively different from non-problem gamblers – for example in genetic or personality terms – or whether they are essentially the same as non-problem gamblers, but gamble more and in a less controlled, less rational way. Similarly, there is debate over whether to call problem gambling an addiction. It certainly can exhibit many of the same characteristics as substance abuse (euphoria, tolerance, withdrawal); the addiction-related neurotransmitter dopamine, which influences reward- motivated behaviour in the brain, appears to be involved; and many problem gamblers also have substance-abuse issues. But that does not mean that exactly the same strategies are appropriate. So, in the absence of certainty about what makes someone susceptible to problem gambling in the first place, much attention has turned to the factors that we do know about and can influence – because problem gambling is as much about the activity as about the individuals.


54 FEBRUARY 2019


If you build it…


From a regulatory point of view, there seems to be a correlation between the availability of gambling in a community and the proportion of problem gamblers there. At an extreme this means that removing gambling opportunities entirely would almost eliminate problem gambling (there would still be some illegal activity), but the more realistic issue is balancing the needs of non-problem gamblers, and the viability of the industry, with protection for those at risk. The types of game that problem gamblers play have come under much scrutiny. While problem gambling can be found everywhere from sports betting to table games to lotteries, attention has focused on those that have a short time between placing the bet and getting the result, allowing for more frequent betting; that potentially offer very large wins; that are based on luck rather than skill; and that encourage the gambler with “near misses”. Use of tokens or electronic funds rather than real cash can also contribute. In practice for western operators this means slots, VLTs, video


poker and the like, whether online or land-based, although in Asian countries table games are more common sites for problem gambling. So, with the problem at least partially identified, how is it being dealt with? There are three strategies: preventive (stopping problem gambling occurring), harm reduction (recognising that people with problems will gamble, but trying to minimise the adverse effects), and abstinence (helping them stop entirely). These responses are typically formulated by policy-makers, health bodies or non-profits, but implementing them very much involves the industry. Treatment for individual problem gamblers – including


psychological therapies, self-help groups, and medication – is also available but rarely concerns the industry directly, except on the level of funding services and perhaps disseminating information. Preventive measures can include limitations on advertising, and education – problem gamblers typically hold incorrect beliefs about probability which lead them to continue believing they are on the verge of the big win. (A classic example is


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