On 14 January 2020, the head of mental health services in England, Claire Murdoch, penned a bold letter to the chief executives of BetFred, Bet365, Flutter, GVC and William Hill “regarding the increasingly clear and worrying links between gambling and mental ill health”. She refers to having seen “first-hand the devastating impact on mental wellbeing of addiction” and her concern that the prevalence of gambling in our society is causing harm. In December 2019, a report, Skins in the Game, by the Royal Society of Public Health found that over half of young people believe that playing a video game could lead to gambling and that the link between gaming and gambling is a negative one.
Ms Murdoch expresses her concern of tactics used to target those who are chasing their losses and VIP incentives, and refers to incentives that “appear designed to undermine people’s ability to stay in control: bet to view streaming; pervasive advertising; and rewards in exchange for bets, all are likely to make decision-making for vulnerable people significantly harder.” Her letter also refers to the gambling industry having a responsibility “to prevent the occasional flutter turning into a dangerous habit” and requests provision of “urgent detail on actions” being taken to reduce “the likelihood and severity of gambling addiction”.
The letter ends declaring “[a]n industry-wide effort is needed to tackle this, and…seeking reassurance that [the gambling businesses are] taking measures, including the following, to minimise harm:
- immediately ban credit card bets from your websites – ahead of the gambling commission’s restrictions due to come into force later this year – helping ensure people don’t spend money they don’t have and potentially rack up life changing debt and the anxiety that comes with it;
- stop the targeting of high-loss customers with the so-called ‘VIP’ treatment which includes incentives such as free tickets and bets; and
- end bet to view commercial deals which require a stake in exchange for sports streaming access.”
The NHS has also confirmed the opening of a new treatment centre for addiction related mental ill health, alongside the 14 gambling clinics announced in the NHS Long Term Plan last year.
On 15 January 2020, Brigid Simmonds, Chair of the Betting and Gaming Council, responded to Ms Murdoch’s letter stating “[w]e take our responsibility to our customers incredibly seriously and we are determined to raise standards and improve safer gambling.” Ms Simmonds acknowledged the important points raised by Ms Murdoch’s letter and summarised some of the work the members had already done, including new age-verification checks, increased funding for research, education and training, the whistle-to-whistle ban on gambling advertising, the creation of GamStop, extensive work on algorithms to help identify those at risk of harmful play and the very recent waived exclusivity on FA Cup games. She added the current work of the Betting and Gaming Council’s on affordability checks, AdTech to block ad, search engines blocking ads from non-UK licensed operators’ advertising and the Safer Gambling Commitments targeted to:
- prevent underage gambling and protect young people;
- increase support for treatment of gambling harm;
- strengthen and expand codes of practice for advertising and marketing;
- protect and empower customers; and
- promote a culture of safer gambling.
Ms Simmonds’ letter expressed a keenness to understand in greater detail Ms Murdoch’s experience, knowledge and concerns and how the industry may address them, and ended with an invitation to meet with the chief executives.