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Exposing the hidden costs of gambling

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15 October 2021

Exposing the hidden costs of gambling

Professor of Criminology

19 October 2021  • Viewing time: 1 minute

Our research is raising awareness of gambling-related harm — and improving support for the families most affected.

Whether it’s buying a lottery ticket or betting on a big match, many of us have gambled at some point in our lives. In fact, UK citizens lost £5.3 billion gambling online in 2019 alone. 

For a lot of people, the loss is about more than just money. Gambling can damage people's self-esteem, health, relationships and those around them. It’s also linked to crime, including fraud, robbery and domestic abuse.

As the global gambling industry continues to grow, I believe more needs to be done to uncover the wider impact of its harms. Only then can we better protect individuals, their family members and communities.

That’s why me and my team undertook some of the first research in this area. Our work has informed policy and practice around the world and, for the first time, given voice to the thousands of UK families affected by problem gambling.

Why now?

From Ancient Roman dice games to 1960s bingo halls, gambling has been around in one form or another throughout history. 

But in recent years, the industry has changed at a rapid pace. Across the globe, an easing of rules, restrictions and attitudes around gambling has led to a huge increase in the range and intensity of products available.

This growth has also been fuelled by the development of online gambling. We can now access hundreds of betting sites at the touch of a button, from the comfort of our own homes.

In short, gambling has become more popular, more powerful and more normalised. This means it’s more important than ever to examine industry practices and the harms they can cause.

The true extent of gambling-related crime

Our research can be split into two key areas.

First, we explored the connections between gambling and crime. This involved an 18 month study of online gamblers, analyses of gambling advertising and interviews with gambling regulators. We also looked at player protection records.

Through this work, we identified the multitude of different crimes both gamblers and gambling providers experience. These ranged from offences to fund gambling, such as theft and robbery, to more complex, large-scale activity like match-fixing and cyber extortion. There was also a link to violent crimes, including assault and domestic abuse.

This was the first evidence-based study to reveal the nature and extent of online gambling-related crime. It also highlighted how it can be tackled through technological, legal and social responses. 

So, what was the impact of these findings?

Changing policy and practice

We used the data to create a taxonomy of gambling-related crime. It categorises the variety of offences linked to gambling, making them easier to understand, investigate and prevent.

In the UK this has been used to increase understanding of gambling-related crime and inform policy. It’s also helping regulators across the world to share information and take a joined up approach to international crime problems such as money laundering and fraud.

What’s more, our research in this area helped demonstrate that current UK gambling laws aren’t fit for a digital age. As a result, the government is now reviewing the Gambling Act 2005 to provide better protection for online gamblers and make the industry safer for all.

Further afield, our work informed the Australian government’s decision to block illegal gambling websites, as well as the regulation of over 200 gaming companies in Malta. It was also used to raise awareness of the costs of illegal betting in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and South Korea.

Person holding bank card and mobile phone
Our research helped to show UK gambling laws need to be updated for a digital age

Empowering friends and families

The second part of our research looked at how gambling impacts on friends and families.

We know that there are around 395,000 individuals with gambling problems in the UK — and that each of these individuals impacts an average of six other people. However, little work has been done in the UK to understand the experience of those who can be harmed the most. 

With support from charities and treatment providers, we carried out the first UK survey of friends and families affected by problem gambling. This uncovered the often devastating effects on their health, wealth and relationships. It also gave us insight into the strategies they use to cope and how they seek help. 

This project empowered friends and families to voice their opinions which, until now, have gone unheard in wider policy debates. They highlighted an urgent need to raise awareness of gambling and its impact on loved ones, and to increase the support available. 

These findings helped inform the development of the UK’s first National Strategy to Reduce Gambling-Related Harm — a major step forward in recognising gambling as a public health issue that affects the lives of many people in many different ways. They also evidenced the need to extend alcohol and drugs services to gambling, which is being led by the charity Adfam. This means more families will get the support they need to cope with problem gambling and lead happier, healthier lives.

A safer, fairer industry

Collectively, our research has shed new light on the hidden harms caused by the global growth of gambling. It shows that these extend far beyond the individual gambler, and are felt by families, friends, communities and wider society.

As the Gambling Act review gets underway, I’m optimistic we’ll see more meaningful change in the industry and an increased focus on gambling as a serious public health concern.

But there’s still a lot to do. It’s vital that we continue to raise awareness of industry harms as things like video game loot boxes and TV betting ads normalise gambling among young people. Further research and policy action will help make sure they don’t pay a high price.

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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