On 6th September 2018 the Gambling Commission published the Gambling behaviour in Great Britain report. It uses data collected in 2016 as part of the Health Survey for England, the Scottish Health Survey and Beaufort Research’s Wales Omnibus Survey, to provide updated estimates for gambling participation, frequency of gambling, low-risk and moderate-risk gambling and problem gambling.
Opportunities to gamble online and offline are everywhere: advertising for betting firms and online gambling are now a regular feature on TV and on football shirts, slot machines have popped up at service stations across Britain, and loot boxes are blurring the lines between video gaming and gambling. For some people gambling constitutes a serious problem which can bring with it a range of financial, relationship and health issues.
As a consequence, gambling is a hot topic, not only in the media, among gambling experts and the market itself, but also politicians and support services. The NHS, for instance, has set up a clinic dedicated exclusively to treating problem gamblers, while the government has reduced the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals.
One objective of the report was to gain a better understanding of who gambles, and who is at risk of gambling, at a level that is likely to be harmful. In addition to sociodemographics, the report looks at mental health, wellbeing and weekly alcohol consumption in England and Scotland (no comparable data was available for Wales).
Who gambled in the past year?
Just over half of the respondents (57% of adults) reported having gambled in some form or other over the last year.
When looking at health indicators, lower wellbeing and poor mental health were linked with lower levels of gambling participation.
Conversely, excessive drinking was linked with higher rates of gambling participation. In other words, the most prolific gamblers were those who drank more than 14 units of alcohol a week, while the lowest participation rates were found among non-drinkers.
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Who gambled at a level that is problematic?
In 2016, 0.7% of the adult population in Great Britain were categorised as problem gamblers.
When again looking at our health indicators, problem gambling was more prevalent among people with poor mental health and those with lower wellbeing scores. This is noteworthy because people with poor mental health and lower wellbeing did not necessarily participate more in gambling, but those who did gamble appear to be at a higher risk of experiencing harm.
Conversely, excessive drinkers were not more likely to be problem gamblers than moderate or non-drinkers.
Who gambled at a level that may put them at risk?
Carving gamblers into problem and non-problem gamblers ignores an important group of gamblers whose behaviour falls below the threshold for problem gambling, but exposes them to some of the risks associated with it. They can shift into harmful gambling patterns.
Low-risk gamblers made up 2.4% of the population in Great Britain. A further 1.1% were categorised as moderate-risk gamblers. This is a considerable amount of people to bear in mind when allocating budgets to the NHS and other services offering support to gamblers.
Moderate-risk gambling was more prevalent among gamblers who also drank excessively and those with poor mental health. Wellbeing, however, was not linked with moderate-risk or low-risk gambling.
Low-risk gambling was more prevalent among excessive drinkers and people with less than optimal health, both groups that were also more likely to have gambled.
What can we learn from this?
People with poor mental health were not more likely to have gambled, but were more likely to suffer consequences from gambling, either at a moderate risk or problematic level. Whether poor mental health is the catalyst for gambling behaviour to become problematic, or whether it is a consequence of problem gambling, requires further inquiry.
Likewise, people with lower wellbeing were less likely to have gambled, but those who did gamble were at a greater risk of engaging in behaviours that placed them in the category of problem gamblers. Once again, it is unclear whether lower wellbeing is the consequence of, or the catalyst for, problem gambling.
Finally, we found higher rates of gambling participation, low risk gambling and moderate risk gambling among excessive drinkers, that is those who drank more than 14 units per week. Excessive drinking was not, however, associated with problem gambling. It is unclear from our data why this is the case and raises intriguing questions about excess, addiction and resilience which should be explored in the future.