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Smoke and mirrors

| By Jon Bruford | Reading Time: 4 minutes
A recent article accusing the gambling industry of acting like big tobacco by using underhand tactics to further its cause is a hazy way of thinking, argues Jon Bruford, and one that reflects poorly on its authors.
gambling industry

Recently, The Guardian’s Australian edition ran a story about the dozen public health experts that have accused the gambling industry of “replicating the tactics of big tobacco”.

I’ve got some issues with this overly simplistic description that may be contentious to people outside the industry. I’m sure I will be accused yet again of just not getting it or similar.

To clarify, this is not The Guardian’s take as such. It simply reported something of a non-story from another publication which is predictably anti-gambling. Because it’s not the lottery.

It’s fair to say that big tobacco’s tactics are generally viewed as being akin to Dr Evil of Austin Powers fame; it’s almost universal to despise the tobacco industry. I’m pretty sure that even smokers hate it (especially given that 20 Marlboro now costs almost £15).

While this perception might be well earned, using big tobacco as a yardstick for measuring anything does one very simple thing: it shields the critic from rebuttal. Because seriously, who in their right mind would defend the tobacco industry? Therefore, by extension, who in their right mind would defend the gambling industry when they’re just as bad? Those big gambling bastards!

Villain of the piece

It’s now fashionable to treat the gambling industry like it’s just such a cartoon villain, with its businesses collaborating to wring the last ounce of humanity (and cash money) from anyone that falls into its vice-like clutches, huddled around a table swathed in cigar smoke and chuckling at the poor fools they prey upon. We are Dick Dastardly, essentially. And not in a good way.

The criticism is actually that the industry “operates from a similar playbook to other health-harming industries, such as tobacco and alcohol”, reported the newspaper, citing the group’s editorial in the journal Health Promotion International.

It continued: “This involves delaying and circumventing regulation, developing innovative products and promotions, appealing to new markets, co-opting the production of research and knowledge and capturing ‘public health’ responses through corporate political activities.”

I find that paragraph laughable and a bit bonkers. I mean, delaying and circumventing regulation. Since when is the gambling industry even able to delay or circumvent regulation? How much influence do these people think we have?

In those instances where regulation is not well-defined, that’s down to the regulator and how good its communication with the industry is; often businesses have to probe to find their boundaries, particularly when regulations are poorly set out, or even wildly out of date.

Then we’ve been nefariously “developing innovative products and promotions, appealing to new markets”. How could we? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to destroy all my mirrors. I can’t look at myself.

Critical research

And finally, “co-opting the production of research and knowledge and capturing ‘public health’ responses through corporate political activities”. This bit’s tricky. The industry has often been criticised for not doing enough to help customers with problems, being slow to react or just generally being utterly crap. Often those criticisms are bang on the money.

At the same time, we are also criticised for funding research which apparently should be entirely separate from the industry. What this actually does is call into question the integrity of the researchers, not the industry, and frankly that is bang out of order.

We have wonderful people working both in and with the industry, many of whom have lived experience of harm, and they recognise that the best source for funding is the industry itself. This is something we absolutely should be paying for, without question.

The people at SG:Certified, at EPIC, Neccton, so many more – these people are actually the leading lights in research. They understand both the industry and its data, and they know the people to get access to that; they are actively working to improve things for players everywhere. These relationships are incredibly important and the people and businesses I have mentioned here are a crucial part of our future and they need funding to do their work.

So I think it’s time to get off the industry’s case for funding research, unless you can prove there have been shenanigans with the data and it has been used for misrepresentation.

Time to stub out the criticism

Funding research is part of the process of getting better, at doing things right, finding how harm actually works, what the triggers are, how multiple facets can combine, who is at risk before they even know they are. If we are not allowed to fund research, we are not allowed to even try to be better.

That’s self-defeating nonsense. Instead of pushing us away from the conversation, push us to do and be better, to fund more, to be able to do these things without facile criticism and to create an adult conversation that everyone can participate in.

Gambling businesses don’t actually break the law all that often. It’s like when you see newspaper stories about dog bites: a couple of awful incidents get massive coverage, but considering how many people enjoy and use the facilities of gambling companies (and dogs, actually), it’s fair to say the vast majority of not-bad-news stories don’t get reported.

It’s not in any gambling business’ interests to break the law or, arguably more importantly, the regulations that govern them. Why? Because the fines will be punitive, because a series of infractions could cause them to lose their licence, that kind of thing.

So if gambling businesses are doing anything dodgy, here’s the tricky part – it’s probably legal, so the argument is a moral one. And the problem with moral arguments is, you’re basically saying “why don’t they behave the way that I want them to?” Well, because they’re not you and they have different motivations and want a different end result.

Fundamentally, as an industry, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we don’t want our customers to die. We don’t even want them to come to harm – we want them to enjoy playing whatever it is that appeals to them without getting into any issues. We want them to come back and do it again because they enjoyed it and because they got good value for their entertainment money.

There are people out there who are at greater risk of developing a problem than others. By funding research, by supplying data, developing and applying solutions and, by facing up to these problems, we are in fact trying to do something about it.

Of course the industry is flawed – show me one that isn’t. Yes, the industry lobbies for favourable positions, to meet its shareholder commitments, to do all those crappy things that allow for short-term decisions to drive forward. Every industry does exactly the same, but we get disproportionate criticism for it.

But we have enough brilliant people, enough agents for good, that we can join this conversation with our heads high and say we are learning, we are doing better and we will get there.

Jon Bruford headshot

Jon Bruford has been working in the gambling industry for over 17 years, formerly as managing editor of Casino International and presently as publishing director at The Gaming Boardroom, with Kate Chambers and Greg Saint. He owns a large dog with a sensitive stomach and spends his free time learning about stain removal.

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