Gambling research: The ‘fun’ can stop with unemployment, ill-health and even death

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Gambling has long been associated with addictive behaviour and financial problems, but the report reveals the association with a range of wide-ranging serious issues – including increased mortality.  Calling for policymakers to do more to detect and protect the highest-spending gamblers, who can rapidly transition from moderate spending, the report says, ‘High levels of gambling are associated with a likelihood of mortality that is about one-third higher, for both men and women, younger and older.’

High levels of gambling are associated with a likelihood of mortality that is about one-third higher, for both men and women, younger and older

Dr Muggleton says, ‘To me, the striking finding is the extent to which even low levels of gambling are associated with harm. For many years, there has been a focus on outcomes among the most extreme gamblers. Our work shows that financial distress, social ills, and poorer health are more prevalent among low level gamblers.’

Dr Rachel Volberg, of the school of public health at the University of Massachusetts, says, ‘This study represents a real leap in helping us understand gambling harms that will influence thinking in the gambling studies field and beyond.’

Gambling may be seen as an ‘ordinary pastime’ and advertising has greatly increased its visibility in the last decade. Sport in particular has become dominated by gambling associations, ‘One in six adverts shown during  the  broadcaster  ITV’s  programming  for  the  2018  FIFA  World Cup promoted gambling – an event that led to calls from some  community  and  policy  leaders  for  greater  regulation.  This is an example of what some public health researchers have called the ‘gamblification of sport’.’

Dr Muggleton says, ‘It’s unclear whether gambling causes negative outcomes, or whether already vulnerable people are disproportionately targeted by bookmakers, for example through advertising and locating betting shops in impoverished neighbourhoods. Either of these relationships is worrying and could have implications for public health policies.’

It’s unclear whether gambling causes negative outcomes, or whether already vulnerable people are disproportionately targeted by bookmakers, for example through advertising and locating betting shops in impoverished neighbourhoods

Dr Naomi Muggleton

The researchers show gambling is associated with devastating consequences. In the largest survey of its type, using banking transactions rather than self-reported data, the team was able to track accurately bank spending on gambling – and the consequences. In 2018, the researchers followed more than 100,000 individuals. They found mean average spending of £1345 in the year on gambling. The median figure is much lower, £125, showing that some gamblers are spending very large sums.

High levels of gambling are revealed through the bank data to be associated with a range of financial problems. According to the report, ‘Higher  gambling  is  associated  with  a  higher  rate  of  using  an  unplanned  bank  overdraft,  missing  a  credit  card,  loan  or  mortgage  payment,  and  taking  a  payday  loan.

A  10%  point  increase  in  absolute  gambling  spend  is  associated  with  an  increase  in  payday  loan  uptake  by  51.5% …and the likelihood of missing a mortgage payment [increases] by 97.5%.’

The study reveals how gambling is ‘sticky behaviour’ and can very quickly become problematic, ‘We  find  that,  for  example,  three   years  earlier  around  half  of  the  highest-spending  gamblers  were  already gambling heavily, while only six months before, over 6.9% of these heavy gamblers were not gambling at all, highlighting the fast acceleration with which some individuals can transition into heavy gambling.’

The team maintains that gambling can have a serious impact on lives, ‘We find that higher gambling is associated with a higher risk of future unemployment and future physical disability.’

By interrogating the bank data, the researchers were able to find that heavy gamblers spend less on health and well-being. The study states that there is ‘a negative association between gambling and self-care, fitness activities, social activities, and spending on education and hobbies. There  is  also  an  association  between  gambling,  social  isolation  and  night-time  wakefulness—individuals  spending  more  on  gambling, travel less and are more likely to spend at night..’.

There  is  an  association  between  gambling,  social  isolation  and  night-time  wakefulness—individuals  spending  more  on  gambling, travel less and are more likely to spend at night

According to Dr Volberg, the study was not without problems – since it does not include cash betting. But she says, ‘To date, studies of gambling harms have been limited by reliance on small samples and self-reports of behavior. Analysis of banking transactions provides unique insights into the scope and sequencing of gambling harms at the individual and population levels with implications for gambling policy, regulation, and harm minimization.’

The association between gambling and financial, social and health outcomes in big financial data, is published by Nature Human Behaviour at this link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-01045-w

Study authors are from: the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford; Warwick Business School, University of Warwick; Applied Science, Lloyds Banking Group; Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford; Warwick Manufacturing Group; School of Health, Medical and Applied Sciences, CQ University, Melbourne, Australia; School of Economics, University of Nottingham.



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