Dr Heather Wardle: A sustained effort to understand gambling harms

Last month the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB) published a report that aimed to gauge a greater understanding of the full range of harms gambling can have on society. In collaboration with the Gambling Commission and GambleAware, the report examined how the social cost of gambling-related harms can be measured and better understood.

SBC caught up with the report’s lead author, Dr Heather Wardle, to find out more.

SBC: Hi Heather! One of the primary objectives of your report was providing a working definition of gambling-related harms and situating this within a new framework for policy and regulatory action. What are the main benefits of doing so?

HW: A focus on harms is simply a focus on outcomes, a focus on the things that happen because of gambling. For too long, policy and practice has focused on individual problem gamblers and ignored the broader range of harms that are experienced from gambling, or the broader range of people that might be harmed from gambling – for example, the partners, families and friends of gamblers.

Looking at the outcomes actually helps us to think about a much broader range of strategies for reducing harms and the different levels at which they need to be implemented. It gives policy makers, regulators and, arguably, the industry the option to think more creatively about their approach to reducing harms.

SBC: The report looks to identify the most effective way to estimate the social cost of gambling-related harms. What are you referring to with the term ‘social cost’? And which methods would you recommend to reduce this cost?

HW: By social costs we’re talking in simplest terms about the cost to society from the adverse consequences of gambling. There are many different ways to approach this, which have been well used in other areas.
We talk in our report about potential use of administrative data, for example benefit records, and creating estimates of what proportion of the claimant bill is attributable to gambling. We also talk about some of the methodological challenges in doing this.

But there are other ways to approach this, you could look at the overall detriment to health and wellbeing from gambling and measure cost in these terms. What we really need now is for expert health economists to engage with this area and provide advice on the best way to approach this. This is what we are hoping our position paper will do.

SBC: Ultimately, do you believe that the establishment of a framework to help quantify and record problem gambling will be beneficial to all those involved?

HW: I think many in the industry might be concerned about the shift in focus to harms but I actually think this could be better for them. They are having to write in annual assurance statements what they are doing to tackle issues, and using harms as a framework gives them more scope to demonstrate impact.

For example, this could be by developing an intervention which shows that the proportion of accounts where people are losing x amount of money has reduced (should this be the case), rather than attempting to demonstrate impact by reducing the number of problem gamblers, where the size of the impact has to be so large it is often unattainable. It is much more in-keeping with a preventative approach to action, I think.

SBC: Moving forward, how would you recommend that the government uses the findings of this study to curb problem gambling and its adverse effects on British society?

HW: This paper is just the start of what I hope will be an ongoing and sustained effort to better understand the harms associated with gambling and their costs. My hope is that it raises the importance of taking strategic action in this area much higher up the policy agenda and I firmly believe this can only be achieved by increasing the visibility of harms and planning action to address them.

The government needs to recognise that to take effective action in reducing harms, it is not enough to focus on individuals alone, but the whole ecosystem in which gambling is offered needs to be considered. There have been some promising signs that this perspective is being considered, I’d like to see this embedded in policy action.

Dr Heather Wardle is an assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, where she specialises in researching gambling behaviour