he prevalence of online gambling has increased from less than 1% in 1999 to 9% in 2016, with many online gamblers holding multiple accounts. This makes online gambling as popular as traditional betting on horses and more popular than playing slot machines or visiting casinos, BMJ's report says.
The authors of the paper, academics from the UK and Australia, believe gambling laws should be radically overhauled, including a mandatory tax on the industry to fund addiction treatment.
They called for a new Gambling Act that would place the onus on the industry, rather than individuals, to reduce problem gambling, as the economic cost of gambling-related harm had been “significantly underestimated” and pointed to research that linked betting addiction to suicide.
Approximately 0.7% of adults (about 340 000 people) in Great Britain are problem gamblers and a further 1.1% (about 550 000) are at moderate risk of harms related to gambling
The paper’s authors highlight a lack of funding, with just £1.5m (USD 1.95 M) spent in the UK last year on the prevention of gambling harm, or about 2p per capita.
By contrast, New Zealand spent 100 times more per capita, £9.5m for a population of 4.7 million people, the Guardian reports.
The academics have thrown their weight behind growing calls, resisted by the government, for a new mandatory tax on the gambling industry to fund improved prevention and treatment services.
Such a system would replace one under which the gambling industry pays a voluntary levy equivalent to 0.1% of their revenues.
Applied to the £14.4bn in revenue that gambling firms made in the latest year for which figures are available, this voluntary levy should raise £14.4m.
Industry regulator, the Gambling Commission, and the Labour party have joined GambleAware–an independent charity–in calling for a mandatory levy at a higher level, which could potentially raise more than £70m a year.
But the sports minister, Mims Davies, recently insisted that the voluntary system did work.
In 2016, the Institute of Fiscal Studies thinktank found that the public cost of problem gambling was between £260m and £1.2bn a year, but the report’s authors say the true cost could be much higher.
Dr Heather Wardle, assistant professor at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the paper’s lead author, said: "Gambling harms have been vastly underestimated. It is placing major burdens on resources, relationships and health.
"The time now is for action to reduce harms which is going to require a much more significant level of funding than is currently available. We believe that a compulsory levy on industry is the only way to achieve this."
The report calls for a complete overhaul of the Gambling Act 2005, passed under the Blair’ government, to place more onus on the industry
It also suggested measures to curtail the “scale and sophistication” of the industry’s marketing activity, spending on which has grown rapidly since the 2005 legislation to reach £1.5bn a year, the bulk of it online through social media and direct marketing.
New legislation on gambling could include the introduction of mandatory affordability checks or a ban on the use of credit cards to gamble, something the government has said it is considering.
The report’s authors also recommend that responsibility for overseeing gambling should move from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport to the Department of Health and Social Care.
According to the paper, there are now 33m active online gambling accounts in Britain, while the prevalence of online gambling has increased from less than 1% of the population in 1999 to 9% in 2016.
The paper also points out that 14% of children 11 to 16 have gambled in the past week, with about 55,000 reporting problems from their gambling behavior.
Prof Gerda Reith, a co-author from the University of Glasgow, said: “Gambling doesn’t just affect an individual. The impacts ripple out beyond them to their family, friends, communities, and society.
“Not only does this have major implications for our health services but is also a social justice issue.
“Gambling harms disproportionately affect poorer or more vulnerable groups in ways that can exacerbate existing inequalities. We urgently need a marked change in approach, and one that is long overdue.”
Tom Watson, the Labour deputy leader, said: “Problem gambling ruins lives, and hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are suffering due to gambling-related harm. That’s why Labour has called for a new gambling act and a statutory levy on gambling companies to fund support for problem gamblers, and I’m pleased that this report supports those recommendations.
“But this government is still dragging its feet, wilfully ignoring the recommendations of experts and even its own appointed regulator. The government should act now to enforce a statutory levy to prevent and protect against problem gambling.”