Gambling addiction: a panic at odds with reality

Top doctors, business consultants and officials reckon we could all end up enslaved by the slot machines. Wanna bet?

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

Last Monday, the British Medical Association joined the UK’s growing controversy about gambling. In a 50-page report, the BMA’s Board of Science, if you please, asserted – without argument – that gambling can be an addiction. As a result, gambling firms should pay at least £10m a year to fund research, prevention, intervention, and treatment programmes around ‘problem’ gambling. (1)

On the same day, the BMA found a sympathetic ally. Business and IT consultants Morse reported the results of a survey among 664 office workers. Nearly one in three of those workers, researchers commissioned by Morse found, gamble at least once a week for at least 15 minutes during work time. Online gamblers at work were most likely to be men (38 per cent) and almost half (46 per cent) were aged 25-34. On the other hand, 76 per cent of female office workers and 83 per cent of 55-64 year olds were found ‘admitting’ that they had placed a bet online with the National Lottery at work. Altogether, Morse contended, these kinds of practices cost UK businesses no less than £306m a year. (2)

By Tuesday, concern about online gambling erupted in the US, with simultaneous criminal charges being laid against the two Canadian founders of Neteller, an IT firm that specialises not in the provision of gambling services, but merely in processing payments made by online gamblers. Their putative offence? Money-laundering. The wider significance of their predicament now? They face perhaps 20 years in prison, so ferociously do the US attorneys want to uphold the illegality of online gambling in their country and penalise online gambling operators setting foot in the US. Already, leaders of firms such as BetonSport and Sportingbet have been arrested in the US. (3) In November 2006 US legislators passed a Bill prohibiting the use of credit cards, cheques and electronic transfers for online gaming. This week, there’s news that the US Department of Justice has issued subpoenas to major international banks, accountancy firms and lawyers, requiring them to divulge all their dealings with gambling firms.

In Macau, casinos are ready to surpass Las Vegas in revenues. In Singapore, a Malaysian gaming group plans to build a $3bn gambling and leisure complex. With UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell’s Casino Advisory Panel deciding, very soon, on the location of Britain’s first 5000m2 super-casino, worldwide official worries over gambling in general and online gambling in particular can only grow. The one thing we can bet on is that the whole furore about gambling will only make more indelible those portraits of human beings that highlight their vulnerability, their lack of self-control and their horrific habits.

The BMA takes a leaf from Ivan Illich

It’s worth seeing just how broadly the BMA, in its urge to cast problem gambling as a medical matter, is prepared to make its definition of exactly what constitutes deviancy from accepted norms. It defines ‘problem gambling’ as ‘behaviour that exists on a continuum’, with ‘extreme, pathological presentation at one end, very minor problems at the other, and a range of more or less disruptive behaviours in between’. That conception fits in, it says, with

‘an emphasis on more general public health, with a focus on the social, personal and physical “harms” that gambling problems can create among various sectors of the population, rather than a more narrow focus on the psychological and/or psychiatric problems of a minority of “pathological” individuals. Such a focus tends also to widen the net to encompass a range of problematic behaviours that can affect much larger sections of the population.’ (4)

So just how large are these larger sections of the population? GamCare is a registered charity that promotes ‘responsible attitudes’ to gambling and works for the provision of proper care for those who have been harmed by ‘gambling dependency’. It holds that there are about 300,000 problem gamblers in Britain. Tessa Jowell believes that there are about half a million. Yet clearly, the BMA wants to widen both its continuum of problem gambling, and its treatment ‘net’, to take in a lot more people. (5)

Like Morse, the BMA is especially concerned with gambling at work. It argues that ‘pathological’ gamblers are often workaholics or people ‘who wait until they are up against deadlines before really working hard’. Do these ‘binge workers’ sound like you or me, by any chance?

For the BMA anybody, but anybody, could be a problem punter. Worse, ‘the 24-hour availability of online gambling is problematic for those with, or at risk of developing, gambling problems, as there is currently nothing stopping a person from gambling 24-hours (sic) a day’. (6) In its urge to inflate gambling into a mass epidemic, the BMA seems to have forgotten a basic point of human physiology: the need for humans, even gamblers, to sleep.

In fact the BMA’s willingness to portray gambling as a physical obsession is part of a wider trend nowadays to see everything as addictive. As early as 1989, Margaret Shotton published Computer Addiction? A study of computer dependency, arguing that social inadequates turned to computers for inspiration and excitement. In 2001, the trendy IT bible Wired reported that the computer game EverQuest was so addictive, it had prompted the formation of hostile support groups named Spouses Against EverQuest and EverQuest Widows. (7) Most famously, in his State of the Union address in January 2006, President Bush insisted that America was addicted to oil. (8)

In fact the ‘narrative’ of a world addicted to everything begins with Ivan Illich (1926-2002). Born in Vienna, Illich became a Catholic priest in New York in the 1950s, as well as a virulent critic of consumption. In the third chapter of one of his earliest bestsellers, Tools for Conviviality (1973), Illich famously wrote: ‘In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy’. In Energy and Equity (1974), he went on to say that ‘Even if non-polluting power were feasible and abundant, the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving’. (9)

In the thirty years or so that have passed since Illich, the lexicons of psychology, pathology and therapy have become the main way in which politics, society, and especially consumption are understood. From Bill Clinton’s fondness for sex onward, the addictive personality, kicking the habit, the tendency of addicts toward denial that they have a problem – these categories are the stuff of tabloids now.

What the BMA has done is formally extend Illich’s medical category of addiction to gambling. Liberals may think themselves pugilistic when they murmur that grown-ups should be allowed to have a flutter, like a single glass of wine, on their way home from work. But the BMA will not even go that far. Its broad approach is to insist that the person next to you could well be a full-on gambloholic.

The Morse code

Morse has done something similar. It has extended misanthropic concern about Internet abuse at work (pornography, bullying emails) to gambling, and is anxious to win projects that allow it to help clients deal with the phenomenon.

For Morse, gamblers at work are ‘culprits’ placing a bet online during office hours or knowing a colleague who has. Worse, Morse found, office online gamblers fritter away 11.6 per cent of their average weekly salary on bets – about as much as the average UK household spends on those Blairite sacraments, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit. Summing up, Morse says:

‘Online gambling is increasingly encroaching on the working week: seven per cent of office workers who gamble online admitted that they bet once a day and 15 per cent confessed to gambling three times a week… clearly impacting productivity levels at work.’

Businesses, Morse says, should therefore ‘control this addiction’. (10)

Note that Morse does not equate the time spent gambling at work with lost production. There it might have a point. Rather, the firm identifies time lost with impaired productivity: bizarrely, Morse headlines its press release with a lament about ‘£306m per year of lost productivity’. Yet this kind of cavalier approach to research issues is continued through the use of the headline-grabbing category of addiction. It does not seem to have occurred to our consultants that bad, fearful and directionless management may lead to people going on gambling binges at work – nor that such binges fail to conform to what you and I would recognise as real addiction.

And suppose that IT departments did try to ban using company computers to play, say, online poker. Do we really believe that such prohibitions work in practice? From the original Prohibition of alcohol in America (1920-33) to the prohibition of non-Jamie Oliver food in British schools, bans on different kinds of consumption and leisure behaviour have proved extraordinarily difficult for the state to enforce. Even if online gambling were to be eradicated from work, Friends Reunited or online dating would spring up to take its place. The mind-numbing homogeneity of most work today would see to that.

The gambling panic in wider perspective

There are two final aspects of the new panic that deserve a brief word.

First, the BMA paper is a striking example of how academic enquiry today backs up today’s therapy-to-victim discourse of ‘addiction’. Mentioned more than 100 times in the paper is Dr Mark Griffiths. And who is he? He is contributing author of the paper. In a special panel devoted to the man, the paper says:

‘Professor Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit (IGRU) at Nottingham Trent University. The IGRU is the UK’s largest gambling research unit and conducts research in the area of gaming, risk taking and interactive technologies. Professor Griffiths is Europe’s only Professor of Gambling Studies and has researched and written widely on gambling and gambling addictions. He has received seven national and international awards for his gambling research….’ (11)

What a guy! But wait a moment. Professor Mark Griffiths is also, according to Nottingham Trent University, ‘currently trustee and National Chair of Gamcare’ – the charity I’ve already mentioned. One can only marvel how the same distinguished professor can study gambling, help give his own work reference after reference in a BMA document on the subject, and at the same time pursue top-level charitable work to put his theories of addiction into action. Here gambling is just one example of how a very few unquestioned theorists can now set the whole tone of national and international debate on an issue.

That is a remarkable thing. But no less remarkable is the obtuseness of critics of the Government on gambling. Take the Observer. The new casinos, in particular the super-casino, it says ‘are surer ways to ensure revenue to the exchequer. The massive inward investment, mainly from American corporations, will also, we are repeatedly told, provide a significant boost for the oxymoronic leisure industry.’ (12)

Well, maybe so. But in a month during which Peugeot abandoned its factory at Coventry, so ending some 60 years of car-making in that town, the willingness of the government to overturn its fears of problem gambling and solicit massive casinos from overseas is easily explained. To bring another Peugeot, or another Nissan, to somewhere like Greenwich or Blackpool is beyond the capability of British capitalism. Green tables and spinning roulette wheels represent a safer technological draw to overseas investors than serious research and development into the car of the future.

It is through this flimsy kind of ‘wealth creation’ that New Labour believes Britain’s towns and cities can be regenerated. That is a habit much worse than wanting to skim a few taxes off inward investors in gambling services.

We are likely to encounter a lot more panic about gambling, no matter what form it takes. Already the august Journal of Gambling Studies has reported that, in the US, having a casino within 10 miles of your home is linked to a 90 per cent increase in the odds of being a pathological or problem gambler. (13) Presumably having a horse race on a PC near you at work will also almost automatically dispose you to losing money on a nag.

But maybe we should think more highly of each other, and bet on mankind’s ability to rise not only above excessive gambling, but also above outrageous gambling panics, too.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University, and author of Play as the main event in international and UK culture, Cultural Trends, Issues 43 and 44, 2003.

(1) British Medical Association, Gambling addiction and its treatment within the NHS: a guide for healthcare professionals, 15 January 2007, p22

(2) Morse, Online gambling costs GB businesses over £306 million per year in lost productivity’, 15 January 2007

(3) James Wilson and others, ‘Arrests rekindle fears for online gambling’, Financial Times, 16 January 2007

(4) BMA, op cit, p3.

(5) Gamcare, Factsheet on Gambling: Basic Facts and Figures

(6) BMA, op cit, pp10, 37.

(7) Julia Scheeres, The Quest to End Game Addiction, Wired, 5 December 2001

(8) Bush, State of the Union address, 31 January 2006

(9) Ivan Illich, first chapter of Energy and equity, first published in Le Monde in early 1973, available here.

(10) Morse, op cit.

(11) BMA, op cit, p iii.

(12) Tim Adams, The best chance you’ll get?, Observer, 7 January 2007

(13) John W Welte and others, ‘The relationship of ecological and geographic factors to gambling behavior and pathology’, Journal of Gambling Studies, Volume 20, No 4, December 2004

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Topics Politics


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