Gambling harms: a public health challenge for Scotland

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This blog examines gambling harms in Scotland. It highlights existing Scottish and UK legislation and policy on gambling. It also presents potential public health approaches to reduce gambling harms, as well as some emerging issues.

For further detail, SPICe has recently published a briefing on gambling harms and public health.

More than one in sixteen adults in Scotland are estimated to have, or be at risk of having, gambling problems. Seven percent of the British population are estimated to be harmed by the gambling of another person.

Gambling harms have been estimated to cost up to £1.16 billion per year for Britain and up to £60 million for Scotland, though there is a great deal of uncertainty in this estimate as many important costs could not be accounted for.

Infographic showing that gambling harms affect individuals, families, social networks, communities and society.

What is a public health approach to gambling harms?

A public health approach to gambling harms recognises that gambling harms affect families, communities and society, as well people who gamble, including people not classed as having a gambling problem. It also recognises that some people in Scotland are at greater risk of gambling harms. On 3 February 2022 the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport, Maree Todd MSP stated:

“We share the concerns that many have expressed around the impact of gambling-related harms in Scotland…. We agree with the view of our stakeholders that a public health approach is needed to tackle those harms and improve treatment services.”

Scottish Parliament, 2022

What are the harms of gambling and who is affected?

Gambling harms are ‘the adverse impacts from gambling on the health and well-being of individuals, families, communities and society’.

Gambling harms can impact mental health, finances and relationships and in more extreme cases lead to suicide, homelessness and crime. These harms affect some people who gamble, but also the families of people with gambling problems.

A large proportion of callers to the charity Gamcare in 2020-21 raised concerns about financial difficulties, anxiety or stress or family and relationship difficulties, regardless of whether they were calling about their own or someone else’s gambling.

A bar chart showing the proportion of people who gambled and affected others calling the GamCare helpline that raised specific issues. Financial difficulties, anxiety or stress and family or relationship difficulties were raised by over 49% of people who gambled and over 49% of affected others.

These harms also have costs to society, though these are very challenging to quantify. Impacts on society include crime, lost productivity and increased pressure on healthcare and other public services.

Gambling harms are unevenly distributed across society. Data from callers to the charity GamCare suggest that women are more likely to be affected by the gambling of others and men are more likely to be harmed by their own gambling. In the most recent Scottish Health Survey men aged 25-34 had the highest prevalence of gambling problems.

Gambling harms also disproportionately affect more deprived areas. The Scottish Health Survey 2021 found that an estimated two percent of people living in the least deprived areas have or are at risk of having gambling problems, compared to 11% of people living in the most deprived areas.

Bar chart showing the proportion of people at risk of or experiencing gambling problems in the least to most deprived areas of Scotland. The proportion increases with deprivation from 2% in the least deprived areas to 11% in the most deprived.

How is gambling regulated?

Regulation of gambling is mostly reserved to the UK Parliament. The Gambling Act 2005 regulates gambling in Great Britain but not Northern Ireland. It is currently under review. The Gambling Commission enforce the Act.

Section 52 of the Scotland Act 2016 devolved powers on fixed odds betting terminals. However, a subsequent UK wide change to the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals means this power cannot be used.

Local authorities are responsible for regulating gambling at a local level. However, few compliance checks take place in Scotland, which may be a barrier to enforcement of the Gambling Act 2005.

What policies address gambling harms in Scotland?

Scotland’s Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2022-25, published in September 2022, states the Scottish Government’s intention to develop a better understanding of gambling harms and to increase access to support and treatment.

Other than this there are no Scottish Government policies, strategies or plans that address gambling harms. This was consistently highlighted by stakeholders as a barrier to allocating funding to work to reduce gambling harms.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Unit of Scottish Government has gambling harms within their remit but are currently ‘constrained due to very limited staff resource’ (Scottish Government, personal communication). However, it is important to note that the capacity for Scottish Government to act in many important areas, such as industry regulation, is limited as these powers are reserved to UK Government.

How could gambling harms be reduced in Scotland?

There are a range of policy options that could reduce gambling harms in Scotland, from the societal to the individual level. While regulation of gambling is reserved to the UK Parliament, actions could be taken within healthcare, education or by local authorities.

For example, there are no specialist NHS clinics for people with a gambling problem in Scotland. This has been highlighted as an ‘anomaly’ given the importance of professional treatment and the number of people with a gambling problem in Scotland. There are several in England and more are to be opened as part of NHS England’s Long Term Plan.

Lessons may also be learned from approaches to other public health issues such as alcohol. Brief healthcare interventions are already used to help people experiencing problems with alcohol in Scotland and could be effective for treating gambling harm. Public information campaigns and education on gambling harms may also reduce gambling harms.

The approach taken in other countries can also provide ideas for reducing gambling harms. For example, New Zealand has a public health approach to gambling written into its gambling legislation.

Sweden collects detailed longitudinal data on the prevalence, incidence and patterns of gambling and gambling harms. Stakeholders in Scotland have highlighted that the lack of detailed data on the nature and extent of harms is as an issue that prevents progress towards reducing gambling harms.

Currently most work in Scotland is carried out by charitable organisations and local authorities. However, often funding is limited and this reduces the potential for long term, joined up approaches.

What are the emerging issues?

There are concerns that increases in the cost of living will increase gambling harms. Research carried out in August 2022 found that amongst women in Britain who gamble at least once a month, 24% expected to increase their gambling due to the increased cost of living. One in ten said they had already used gambling to try to supplement their income.

The current funding mechanism for gambling research, education and treatment has also been criticised. The industry currently pays a voluntary levy to the charity GambleAware, which distributes funds. This is perceived as not:

  • transparent
  • independent of the gambling industry
  • able to provide sufficient or sustainable funding for long term work to reduce gambling harms.

The Advisory Board for Safer Gambling, who advise the Gambling Commission, have been among those calling for a statutory levy to be imposed, with a different mechanism for distributing funds. The power to introduce a statutory levy is already legislated for in the Gambling Act 2005.

How can people get help with gambling harms?

NHS Inform Scotland provides information for people experiencing gambling harms. People can also phone the National Gambling Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 0808 8020 133.

Ben Walton

UKRI Intern, SPICe