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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The recklessness of responsible gambling

By Dan Waugh, Partner, Regulus Partners

Perhaps it’s the contrarian in me, but at a time when the gambling industry is keener than ever to demonstrate its CSR credentials, I find myself turning against responsible gambling.

To be clear, I fervently believe in the need to tackle problem gambling, based upon a combination of research, education, intervention and treatment. It’s just that I struggle with the increasingly common invitation to “gamble responsibly”.

I have four inter-related problems with the notion of ‘responsible gambling’ as a consumer message.

First, I suspect that very few people actually wish to gamble responsibly. Indeed, part of the thrill of gambling is that it feels in some way irresponsible. Gambling offers a recreational way to break taboo without breaking any laws or (in most cases) causing harm. It is a small act of rebellion against societal norms – and who ever heard of a responsible rebel?

If I’m right about this, then there’s a good chance that the invocation to “gamble responsibly” will fall upon deaf ears. This is a shame because others have already done a good deal of the legwork here. In 2009, Paul W. Smith, the director of corporate social responsibility at the British Columbia Lottery Corporation launched GameSense ( as a way of promoting healthy and informed attitudes towards gambling through engagement with the consumer on his terms rather than the operator’s (interestingly the campaign’s references to gambling were often oblique).

My second (related) point is that as words of advice go, “gamble responsibly” verges on the facile. It has a directness that harks back to a bygone age of advertising where consumers where instructed rather than influenced; but whereas we might be expected to know what to do with the motto “Drink Beer”, it’s not at all clear what we are meant to do or not do with “gamble responsibly”. One might suspect that the aim here is less about influencing positive behaviour and more about being seen to be responsible; but it’s just as likely to be down to lack of thought and insight.

Beef number three with “gamble responsibly” is the implication that it is the consumer rather than the operator who determines whether the gambling is responsible or not. The question of whether problem gambling arises from the gambling or the gambler is long contested – and the truth is likely to lie between the two. Clearly, adults need to take responsibility for their own actions but this certainly does not absolve the gambling industry of its own duty of care. The danger with “gamble responsibly” is that it lets the operator off the hook too easily.

My fourth and final issue with the notion of ‘responsible gambling’ is that it suggests that there is such a thing as irresponsible gambling, which we must assume is a proxy for problem gambling. The implication is that people who get into difficulties with gambling (often as a result of deep emotional distress) are behaving irresponsibly.

There are undoubtedly a large number of people (let’s take the readership of the Daily Mail as a yard-stick) who consider problem gambling to be a form of degeneracy rather than a mental health disorder. By promoting the idea that problem gamblers are irresponsible we may well reinforce these stigmas. This will not only make it harder for sufferers to seek help but may also make matters worse for them by inducing feelings of shame (which may in turn lead to harmful behaviour).
As someone who believes that the words we use reveal our intentions, I see this as being much more than a matter of semantics. We should applaud those who are trying to promote healthy attitudes towards gambling but good intentions need to be married to insight – and simply telling people to “gamble responsibly” seems unlikely to lead to harm reduction.

Perhaps it’s time that we reframed ‘responsible gambling’ in terms of the industry’s duty rather than the customer’s and allow gamblers the pleasure of being a little bit irresponsible again. 

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