s betting shops begin reopening in the UK, GVC, owner of Ladbrokes Coral Group, has produced a blog presenting CEO Kenneth Alexander’s views on how the UK sector is tackling problem gambling issues.
A disorientating feature of the lockdown period has been the absence of the familiar rhythms of the sporting calendar. "Of course, lots of people enjoy adding to the excitement by placing a wager," Alexander explains. "Just look at the Virtual Grand National which saw around 5 million people tune in to watch on ITV and placed bets which raised £2.6m for charity in April."
The popularity of these combined leisure activities is one of the factors that have made the gambling industry a hugely valuable one to the UK economy, contributing around £9 billion Gross Value Added. GVC alone is one of the 20 biggest taxpayers in the UK.
However, "there is also no denying that, for a small minority of people, gambling can become a problem," he admitted. It was understandable, therefore, that the lockdown could exacerbate the issue for some.
There is a significant anti-gambling lobby that believes punitive and mandatory restrictions – notably clamping down on online stake thresholds – will help problem gamblers. "I don’t doubt for one minute their genuine desire to help solve the problem, but such measures would actually only serve to exacerbate the issue: punters would switch instead to unlicensed black market operators, where there is zero customer protection, interaction or intervention for those who may be at risk," he explained. In other words, it is an approach that could damage the very people that it seeks to protect.
The proportion of UK customers betting with illegal gambling operations is currently amongst the lowest in the world, but the black market in this country still generates £1.4 billion of turnover a year.
"We only need to look at other countries that have imposed onerous regulations, such as France and Australia, to see that they lead to the rise of substantial black markets. And problem gambling has been found to be up to 150% more prevalent among illegal operators. Furthermore, it is not a case of simply stopping black market operators by using website blocking devices: the US tried this approach in 2006 when they attempted to stop online gambling, and it did nothing to prevent billions of dollars from being spent on black market operators," he explained
"We are constantly improving our player protection policies based on the extensive data and technological capabilities that we have. For example, our software-based algorithms, known as ‘markers of harm’, can identify problematic customer behavior, which helps our responsible gambling team intervene before serious problems develop," Alexander went on. "We are working hard to better understand the nature of the problem, and have made a 10-fold increase in our voluntary donations to the research, education, and treatment of problem gambling. We also believe there is simply too much gambling advertising – particularly around football – and have therefore voluntarily withdrawn our advertising on football shirts and stadiums around the country."
"We know that our customers want to see us go further on safer gambling measures. For example, when asked, punters tell us they are strongly in favor of having the ability to set voluntary limits for online slots games, and as a result, we have implemented this change across our business," he said.
According to Alexander, headline-grabbing blanket restrictions on stake limits may appear superficially attractive, but ultimately, they are likely to be hugely counterproductive. "Regulation should encourage the industry to account for individual circumstances, provide tools that let customers manage their own gambling at a level which is affordable for them, and intervene before problems develop."