Overall participation in online gambling for at-risk gamblers was more than double that of the general gambling population in 2018, according to a review carried out by PHE.

Overall participation in online gambling for at-risk gamblers was more than double that of the general gambling population in 2018, according to a review carried out by Public Health England

Commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, the PHE review acknowledged that overall participation in online gambling for at-risk gamblers (23.4 per cent) was more than double that of the general population of gamblers not under the “at-risk” banner (9.4 per cent).

It estimated that 0.5 per cent of the adult population have a problem with gambling, with 3.8 per cent at risk of problem gambling, while seven per cent are negatively affected by other people’s gambling. 

Harmful gambling is said to have a different “activity profile” to general gambling, with PHE noting that online wagering – including slots, casino and bingo games, electronic gambling machines in bookmakers, sports and other event betting – has a high participation rate among harmful gambling. The National Lottery, however, is said to have a low rate of participation. 

“There is so much more at stake from gambling than just losing money – from the toll on mental health to the impact on those around the gambler,” explained Rosanna O’Connor, director of Alcohol, Drugs, Tobacco and Justice at PHE.

“The evidence is clear – harmful gambling is a public health issue and needs addressing on many fronts, with an emphasis on preventing these harms from occurring as well as with help readily accessible for those directly and indirectly affected by the wide ranging and long lasting negative impacts of gambling.”

The government’s investigation into evidence on gambling harm, which it states is “the most comprehensive estimate of the economic burden of gambling on society to date”, revealed that the harms associated with gambling cost “at least” £1.27bn in 2019 to 2020 in England.

As part of the PHE assessment of the social and economic burden of gambling, six studies were undertaken to provide feedback on stakeholders’ views of gambling related harms recorded across England. 

The analysis includes the first estimate of the economic cost of suicide – £619.2m – and provides an updated cost of homelessness associated with harmful gambling, which the report states is £62.8m.

The review showed that people at risk of gambling harms are concentrated in areas of “higher deprivation”, such as the North of England, with the North East having the highest prevalence of at-risk gamblers, currently 4.9 per cent, closely followed by the North West at 4.4 per cent. The South East recorded the lowest prevalence at three per cent. 

The report noted that “due to small numbers, it was not possible to determine the levels of problem gambling for each region in England with any statistical significance”.

Jim McManus, vice president of the association of directors of Public Health, stated: “This evidence review from PHE paints a stark picture of the avoidable harms from gambling to the economy, society and the individual. 

“Again, we see that existing regional inequalities are exacerbated by these harms with those from poorer areas at higher risk from the negative impacts.

“A public health approach, with cross-government support, properly funded, is essential to reducing harmful gambling and all the negative consequences highlighted by this research in relation to debt, relationships and jobs.”

The impact of gambling among children and young people was also reviewed, with the report stating that participation in any form of gambling in “the last seven days” has reduced from 23 per cent in 2011 to 11 per cent in 2019. Participation in gambling activity within the last 12 months also fell from 39 per cent in 2018 to 36 per cent in 2019. 

The latest figures in the review highlighted that the extent of gambling among children and young people is lower than drinking alcohol, yet higher than using either electronic or tobacco cigarettes and illegal drug use. 

The review found that there “may also be a relationship between these other harmful activities and gambling”, but provided no evidence nor statistics to support the claim. 

“Harmful gambling is a major public health issue which seriously impacts on health in a number of ways,” added Faculty of Public Health president, professor Maggie Rae. “As well as suicide and severe mental health problems, this report highlights harms caused by gambling including financial, employment, relationships, physical health, and criminal activity.

“Gambling organisations are preying on people’s addictions, and we see that the burden of gambling harms is borne by those already facing disadvantage, serving to widen existing health inequalities. This report is welcome as it highlights the wide range of harms caused by gambling, and calls for concerted action to tackle this major public health problem. 

“This urgent call is especially timely as we have seen these problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On the impact of the global pandemic, PHE’s rapid review noted an overall reduction in gambling following the first lockdown, and either no change or reduction in frequency of betting activity. 

Though there was an increase in online gambling, it was reported as “small”, rising from 1.5 per cent to 2.3 per cent. Four per cent of participants in the study claimed to gamble more during lockdown with 20 per cent of problem gamblers admitted to further gambling activities within the same period. 

A further two studies, conducted in Europe by using data on online gambling participation, also found reductions in online betting between March and April 2020, with the studies using data from gambling providers. 

PHE disclosed that the studies were conducted “during the early stages” of the pandemic, with further understanding needed on the long term effects on gambling participation during COVID. 

Tim Miller, executive director at the Gambling Commission, responded to the review: “We are pleased to welcome this important independent report from Public Health England.

“Protecting people from gambling harms is a priority for the Gambling Commission, and we take a public health approach to do so. Public Health England’s work will help to support the continuing collaboration of a wide range of bodies under the National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms.”

The conclusion from the PHE’s 2005 Gambling review stated that “evidence suggests that harmful gambling should be considered a public health issue because it is associated with harms to individuals, families, close associates and wider society” with an approach that “focuses on prevention, early intervention and treatment.”

The fresh approach will see the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities work “closely with other departments”, including the DCMS and key stakeholders, to develop a workplan to address knowledge gaps, improve data collection and deliver an effective response to gambling-related harm. 

Responding to the review, gambling minister Chris Philip, added: “We are gathering all the necessary evidence to reset the balance between giving adults the freedom to choose how they gamble safely, with the right protections for those at risk of harm.

“We are determined to protect vulnerable people from exploitation by aggressive advertising or unfair practices that entrench problem gambling.”

To read the full review, click here.