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Study highlights wide-ranging risks of gambling across all levels of spend

| By Daniel O'Boyle
A new study from the University of Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention has found that the top 1% of gamblers' deposits averaged 58% of their income.

The study – led by the Department’s Dr Naomi Muggleton – also suggested there was a link between both high and moderate levels of gambling spend and adverse affects such as financial problems, risk of unemployment and social isolation.

It went as far as suggesting an association between gambling spend and increased mortality rates.

‘The association between gambling and financial, social and health outcomes in big financial data’ purports to be the largest study of its type. It was compiled by analysing banking transactions for more than 100,000 individual gamblers at Lloyd’s Banking Group during 2018. This was then aggregated for up to 6.5m individuals over up to seven years.

The mean average annual net deposits across this sample base was £1,345, though the median average (the midpoint of all spend) fell to £125. This suggested averages were skewed by a small number of particularly high spenders.

The Oxford researchers also discovered that higher levels of gambling was associated with increased borrowing, such as using an unplanned  bank  overdraft,  missing  a  credit  card,  loan  or  mortgage  payment,  and  taking  a  payday  loan.

“A  10%  point  increase  in  absolute  gambling  spend  is  associated  with  an  increase  in  payday  loan  uptake  by  51.5% […] and the likelihood of missing a mortgage payment [increases] by 97.5%,” the report noted.

It also suggested an association between high levels of gambling and higher risk of future unemployment, as well as with future physical disability.

These gamblers were also less likely to spend money on health and wellbeing and more likely to be socially isolated and awake late at night.

This was not confined to the highest spenders, the report continued. It suggested an association between even low gambling spend and negative quality-of-life effects.

“To me, the striking finding is the extent to which even low levels of gambling are associated with harm,” Muggleton said.

“For many years, there has been a focus on outcomes among the most extreme gamblers.

“Our work shows that financial distress, social ills, and poorer health are more prevalent among low level gamblers.”

The report found that the link between increased gambling and a greater mortality risk was consistent across demographics.

While one of the report’s headline claims, that high levels of gambling are associated with a 37% increase in mortality, Muggleton looked to clarify this in her comments.

She stressed that the report could not say whether the association between gambling and any negative effect including increased mortality was causal. The link was a cause for concern either way, she added however. 

“It’s unclear whether gambling causes negative outcomes, or whether already vulnerable people are disproportionately targeted by bookmakers, for example through advertising and locating betting shops in impoverished neighbourhoods,” she explained.

“Either of these relationships is worrying and could have implications for public health policies.”

To illustrate this claim, the study noted that the heaviest gamblers exhibit higher five-year mortality rates. It used the example of 44 year-old women, for whom gambling 30% of annual expenditure is associated with an increased chance of death from 50 in 10,000 to 69 in 10,000.

The report also looked further back over the history of the players studied and found that many of the higher-depositing players rapidly increased their spend.

“We  find  that,  for  example,  three   years  earlier  around  half  of  the  highest-spending  gamblers  were  already gambling heavily, while only six months before, over 6.9% of these heavy gamblers were not gambling at all, highlighting the fast acceleration with which some individuals can transition into heavy gambling,” the study said.

Dr Rachel Volberg, of the school of public health at the University of Massachusetts, said the study was particularly important because of its significantly large sample size.

“To date, studies of gambling harms have been limited by reliance on small samples and self-reports of behavior,” Volberg said.

“Analysis of banking transactions provides unique insights into the scope and sequencing of gambling harms at the individual and population levels with implications for gambling policy, regulation, and harm minimization.”

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