Stricter laws aren't a quick fix for problem gambling

Heavy-Handed Legislation No Substitute For Nuanced Gambling Policy

The United States has in recent years been hurtling full speed toward the widespread liberalization of gambling. Across the Atlantic, however, things are moving in the opposite direction.

While the attitude toward gambling in the United Kingdom has historically been quite permissive, there are some who’d like to see the industry reined in.

Members of parliament have begun calling for stricter gambling laws, including a proposal to end all gambling ads in print and broadcast media. The effort is bolstered by a recent survey in which 82% of respondents agreed that no one under the age of 18 should be exposed to such advertisements.

The industry is naturally opposed to the suggestion but so too is the government’s own regulator, the UK Gambling Commission.

Online Poker Report spoke to After Gambling podcast host Jamie Salsburg to get his thoughts on the matter. Salsburg is himself a former problem gambler who supports an education-based approach to the issue rather than outright prohibition.

Complex problems don’t have simple solutions

Salsburg’s primary criticism is that both the survey and the proposed solutions are overly simplistic. The survey takes a complex issue and reduces it to a series of yes-or-no questions, some of which are constructed in a deliberately leading way.

“It’s an idea that’s sort of half-baked,” Salsburg says. “Okay, you can come out and create an emotional response that we should ban something. But then you have to deliver with something that’s going to be better.”

Consider that problem gambling has existed for millennia, and no single set of policies has universally addressed the issue. While a simple fix might look good on paper, it doesn’t often work in practice.

“I don’t see a complete solution being proposed that thinks through second- and third-level consequences,” Salsburg says.

Unintended consequences of a gambling ad ban

That argument applies equally to other hard-and-fast proposals, including mandatory deposit limits, an end to VIP programs, or even complete prohibition.

Because the ad ban is Parliament’s main focus, however, Salsburg offers some specific criticisms.

“It’s great in theory,” he explains, “but in today’s landscape it just completely ignores the internet, and social media, and all the delivery channels. At some point we have to accept that there’s going to be exposure. I think that creates a different question: How do we talk to kids about gambling? How do we talk to adults about gambling? That’s a better conversation, in my opinion.”

Pushing gambling out of the public discourse is a wasted opportunity. Operators might instead be encouraged to use their platform to discuss ways to maintain a healthy relationship with gambling. Promoting the activity and fighting addiction don’t have to be at odds.

“You don’t need to tell a sad story,” Salsburg says. “You can tell a positive story. Don’t show the dad missing his kids’ sporting event, show the dad who set a spend limit and now is at the event.”

Exposure isn’t the root of the problem

Opposition to an advertising ban doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all either. Even if preventing exposure was the goal, a ban wouldn’t accomplish that. Gambling is ubiquitous.

Some degree of exposure can, however, be helpful in combatting addiction. Exposure leads to discussion, which leads to education — even for children.

Salsburg says he talks to his kids about gambling on a regular basis.

“We talk about different habits and making sure that you’re doing different things. If you’re doing one thing to the exclusion of other things that you like doing, don’t you miss those other things? The people who don’t let their kids see gambling ads aren’t allowing their kids to ask, ‘Hey, what is that?’ which is the best way to start that conversation.”

Whether the issue is sex, drugs, or gambling, the most problematic behaviors develop in environments where mystique surrounds the thing in question. Sweeping vices under the rug as taboo can actually help them flourish.

Educated, personal decision-making is key

When it comes to addictive behaviors, there’s a limit to how effective it can be to limit exposure or access. Addicts will often find a way to feed their addiction even if it’s difficult, dangerous, or illegal to do so.

Ultimately, Salsburg believes education is the best medicine.

“You have to have personal responsibility,” he acknowledges, “but how can you have personal responsibility if you don’t know anything?”

Even the most prohibitive laws generally can’t cut off all access to the source of the problem. In the worst case scenarios, however, they can make it harder to find information and sources of help.

“A black market for gambling is more of a concern even than a black market for cigarettes or alcohol,” claims Salsburg. “It’s important to keep people in a regulated market where there’s at least some hope of a responsible gambling campaign or an intervention. As soon as you’re out in the black market, you’re not going to get that.”

Regulation more nimble than gambling legislation

Asked for a more nuanced policy he believes would be effective, Salsburg acknowledges that it’s hard to see a clear solution.

“Policies are always difficult,” he says. “You can write something, but people are always going to push up to the boundaries or cross the boundaries in order to test them.”

Companies tend to focus on compliance with the letter of the law rather than subjective ethical considerations, and laws don’t typically adapt well to change. In places where gambling has been legal for a long time, such as the UK, most relevant laws predate the internet and mobile devices.

One solution Salsburg sees is to shift the emphasis away from expanded laws and toward hiring competent, trustworthy regulators.

“The less you write, the better,” he says. “Get a regulator that everybody likes 80% of the time. Nobody’s going to agree with everything all the time, but a person or small team making good calls is better than detailed legislation. The more detailed the laws become, the more chance for exploiting future loopholes.”

As for where to find such regulators, he recommends looking for candidates with experience in the private sector.

“Those are going to be the people who are best-equipped to make these types of decisions. There’s such a lack of trust on both sides, but if that’s how you feel, find some people in the industry. Talk them, get to know them. They’re not all predatory. There are a lot of people who are doing a job they believe in, doing the best they can. We have to find those people.”

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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