YouGov, the polling company, regularly surveys about 2,000 people in Great Britain to determine the public’s attitudes to various industries (Northern Ireland excluded). The question they ask is, “How favourable or unfavourable do you feel about each of the following sectors in the UK?”
Of those they asked, 50% said that supermarkets were “very or somewhat favourable”, pharmaceutical companies came in at 43%, and even banking scored 24%. Unfortunately, gambling was on a par with the tobacco industry at 5%.
A separate YouGov survey of almost 2,700 people, a representative sample of the GB population, found that for 37% of the respondents, problem gambling was most important for UK politicians to take action on, about the same as for alcohol abuse; illegal drugs were 49% and unhealthy eating was 33%. Respondents could select more than one issue. I suspect the survey might have a different result if the survey did not include a list of issues.
Another YouGov survey, this time with a representative sample of almost 4,700 of the GB population, found that 18% wanted all gambling banned. Thankfully, 53% disagreed with this proposition, although 70% thought there was too much advertising and sponsorship by gambling companies around sports teams and events. And 65% said that gambling companies do not take the issue of problem gambling serious enough.
With figures such as these, it will be very difficult to get political support for any part of the industry, at a time when the industry needs to demonstrate that it is socially responsible and can be relied upon to do the right thing without the need for some of the more onerous proposals being floated for the current review of the 2005 Gambling Act.
Why is the British gambling industry so unpopular? If you carried out this survey in other European countries, I believe you might obtain similar findings. However, it is unlikely that we would get the same result in the U.S.
Earlier this month, the governor of the state of Connecticut was proudly boasting that the state had collected $1.7 million from recently legalised online gambling. Somehow, I do not think you would see Prime Minister Boris Johnson or any of his cabinet colleagues singing the merits of the taxes collected from gambling in Great Britain.
I believe the lack of support here has to do with two things: an overabundance of advertising and too many gambling outlets. Together, they create the perception that there is too much “in-your-face” gambling, while it is difficult to see or experience any of the benefits from gambling.
Due to regulatory and fiscal policies, gambling is widely distributed throughout Europe. According to the Gambling Commission, in September 2020, Great Britain had 131 casinos, 1,390 AGCs (arcades), 6,735 betting shops, and 601 bingo halls, as well as a sports book and casino potentially on every smartphone. Most of the land-based venues are small on an international scale, so employment is spread reasonably evenly throughout Great Britain. Any tax generated goes to the Treasury and becomes part of the public purse.
Such arguments as the UK industry provides employment for almost 100,000 people and pays nearly £2.8 billion in taxes every year to the UK Treasury do not resonate with the British public. They’re simply not tangible; most people neither see nor feel those benefits.
A similar survey of the people in Stoke might come to radically different conclusions to the ones mentioned above. Bet365, the international betting goliath, is a relatively large employer in Stoke, with approximately 2,500 employees at the company’s headquarters.
Gambling in the U.S. is less homogenous. A state may have only three casinos, racinos, etc., but they are large affairs often employing 3,000 or more people and drawing thousands of customers per day from a much wider area than a casino in Europe. The benefits from employment and expenditure on goods and services are felt locally. Everyone is either employed by the casino, knows someone employed by the casino, or has a job that is dependent on the casino or visitors to the casino’s expenditures. It is a model that garners much public support.
For those who do not live in the shadow of the casino and might not directly experience the benefits, it is a case of out of sight, out of mind. That is not the case with the European land-based or online gambling industry. All too often, gambling outlets are omnipresent.
However, the legalisation of online gambling represents a threat to the public perception of the U.S. gambling industry. Already, there are noises in a number of states objecting to the volume of online gambling ads. The U.S. gambling industry’s repute may be in for a battering.
What can the European gambling industry do to improve its reputation? Obviously, there is no quick fix. Industries have started to embrace ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) as a means of burnishing their credentials, but this is mainly to improve their profile in front of the investment community. And much of it is just doing the right thing. Joe or Jo Public does not really care about ESG.
If gambling companies are going to have an impact, it will need to be at a local level. Contributions of both time and money to charities are a great way of emphasising commitment to social responsibility. These donations need to be to local or regional charities if they are to be associated with the industry. A contribution to a large national charity will not carry the same weight, regardless of the size of the donation. Some may read about it and a few may hear about it, but the people who benefit, their close relatives, and friends are unlikely to know about it.
An additional measure would be a narrative that counters the poor research which is regularly spoon fed to the media and lapped up as gospel.
Until the 1990s, nearly all of the research in the United States into the use of illegal drugs was about their negative impact on health (mental and physical) and the harms they caused. Hence, media articles reflected this and public opinion followed. Does that sound familiar?
As the millennium approached, the emphasis of the research started to change. The research began to look at the medical benefits that cannabis and its derivatives could provide, including their medicinal uses, such as antiemetics to counter the side effects from chemotherapy. From that point on, the research broadened to include other benefits that it might provide, both mental and physical. These studies were widely trailed in the media of the time. Today, recreational cannabis use is legal in 18 states and for medicinal use only in 13 others. Thirty years ago, that was considered impossible.
Professor Peter Collins, an economist who was the Director for Centre for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, part of the University of Salford Business School, would tell of the social benefits of gambling and the fact that generally, gamblers are happier and more optimistic than the general population. Professor Collins was an expert in all matters having to do with gambling and was a sought-after pundit by the press and television, but he could not always be relied upon to say positive things about the gambling industry.
Sadly, the Centre for the Study of Gambling closed in 2010 due to a lack of funding and that was perhaps a short-sighted move by the industry. We might not be in the position we find ourselves in had the Centre survived.
Whilst it might not be possible to provide volumes of research into the physical, economic, and social benefits of gambling, it should be feasible to analyse and critique the research that is currently being produced, to point out its failings if any, and to counter inaccuracies where they exist.
At the moment, the media pick up whatever is said or written about the current studies, all of them negative, and publish them without any critical thought. With an institution providing a critique, it might be possible to get some accurate information into the current debate about gambling and to slowly chip away at the “all-gambling-is-bad” stories.