It’s time for the industry to face reputational challenges head on By Hannah Gannagé-Stewart, CDC Gaming Reports March 6, 2019 at 3:00 am It will have come as no surprise to the industry last week when the UK’s deputy opposition leader Tom Watson unveiled the Labour party’s plans to reform gambling legislation. At least it shouldn’t have done. Over the past year calls for fundamental changes to the way the industry operates and is regulated have been building across various channels of public discourse in the UK. In May last year, a £2 maximum stake was imposed on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Then, in the summer, the World Cup ignited heated debate over ‘excessive’ TV advertising in pre-watershed (9 pm) slots. All the while, the Gambling Commission was preparing to dish out hefty fines to a succession of operators that had failed in their duty to protect problem gamblers. Little surprise, then, to hear Watson stand up in front of the Institute for Public Policy Research last week and call for betting limits, not dissimilar to that imposed on FOBTs, to be extended to other verticals. “Stake limits should be enforced on certain products when evidence shows they are linked to higher rates of problem gambling”, he urged. “Offline slot games, so-called B3 machines, have a maximum stake of £2. Online, that limit does not exist, even though many of the games are essentially the same. And for online table games, the stakes are often even higher. “Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should have a blanket framework of stake limits across all products, but we should keep the option open for any product, if the evidence demands it. The regulator should have a full range of options”, he continued. “The same goes for limits to speed. For some games, like roulette, it makes no sense to only condemn a 20-second spin on a FOBT, when a player can make the same spins online. For some games, we need consistency of speed.” In his carefully-worded 30-minute address on 28 February, Watson said legislation has been outstripped by advances in technology, having, for example, been drawn up prior to the advent of mobile gaming – which accounts for around a third of bets placed in the UK today. He was careful not to too heavily condemn the industry itself, aiming fire instead at the modern phenomenon of “surveillance capitalism”, which he argued had fuelled the “public health emergency” gambling had become. Jumping on the well-worn phrase of many a national news hack, he said problem gambling was “a hidden epidemic”, earnestly adding: “The severity of the harm caused cannot be overstated”. However, presumably in a bid to dispel any whiff of moral indignation, he included himself among the one-in-ten UK adults who gamble. It was, after all, his party that liberalised gambling in the UK with the 2005 Gambling Act, which created the Gambling Commission, enabled the proliferation of FOBTs on the high-street in the first place, and encouraged innovation in online gambling. Just over a decade on, outrage over the success of the gambling industry versus its negative impacts on society is reaching a crescendo. It is one of few subjects that unites the British press: the industry is lambasted as regularly by the Daily Mail as by The Guardian and the FT. And, just as it came as no surprise to hear Watson detail his fears for society under the current gambling regime, nor was the media coverage that followed. On Monday the FT ran a piece entitled “Why the party is over for online gambling”. But is the party over? Gambling is not the first industry to come under fire in this way, but it is perhaps one of the worst at providing a united front in response. During his speech, Watson retrospectively highlighted somewhat of an own-goal by the Association of British Bookmakers during last year’s FOBT debate. As part of its argument against the minimum stake, the trade body had pointed out that it was unfair to limit FOBTs while online gaming was subject to no such limits. “We were on opposite sides of that argument, but I think they have a point”, Watson said. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude that divides various sectors of the gambling industry has the potential to be its undoing as legislators seek to turn the heat up on all operators. Now could not be a better time for the news that a consortium of gambling trade bodies is in the pipeline. Not only must they join forces to lobby policy-makers, but they should help the industry take responsibility for its failings and communicate its successes in a unified manner to the public. Gambling can be harmful. It should be regulated, and it should be incumbent on operators to protect their customers from harm at all costs. Watson’s choice of semantics around ‘public health’ draws natural comparisons to the alcohol and tobacco industries, who have already weathered this storm. Among its own, the industry will speak at length on its negative public perception, but rarely will the CEO of a major bookmaker or online gambling firm put his or her head above the parapet in public. To borrow a quote from the FT’s latest piece on the subject, Labour prime minister Tony Blair said himself while ushering in the Gambling Act in 2005, “There is no point in taking a position which says all gambling is wrong”.