Tottenham Report: Careful What You Wish For By Andrew Tottenham, Managing Director, Tottenham & Co February 24, 2021 at 10:00 pm The terms of reference for, and the scope of, the review of the Gambling Act 2005 have been agreed on and we are off to the races. All parties have started lobbying for their positions, with articles appearing in the media and spokespeople for various factions popping up on broadcast news. To avoid the debacle of the FOBT debate, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) want to control the message — an industry speaking with one voice. In doing so, it has cut off a route into Parliament through the All-Party Betting & Gaming Group. This group used to hold seminars where anyone could come to hear speakers from all sides of the debate around gambling. Usually, at the end of the seminars, there was ample opportunity for questions, answers or comments on what was just said. Unfortunately, the new Chair, Conservative MP Lawrence Robinson, has curtailed the group’s activities and it will no longer host the independent seminars, just at the time when the industry needs friends in Parliament. Mr Robinson is a paid advisor to the BGC. The Gambling Commission has jumped the gun slightly. Having been accused of ineffectuality by parliamentarians and the National Audit Office, one of the points of the scope of the review is, “The effectiveness of our regulatory system, including the Gambling Commission’s powers and resources to regulate and keep pace with the licensed market and tackle unlicensed operators …” So the GC is showing how effective it can be and is ploughing ahead with consultations on potential future regulations. I believe that some of these are matters that should really be part of a national debate, rather than being confined to a narrow GC consultation. One of the areas about which the GC has opened a consultation is affordability checks. Depending on how they are implemented and the default maximum deposit, they could have a dramatic impact on the UK’s online-gambling industry. A major concern has to be whether, in their rush to protect those harmed by gambling, there is the unintended consequence of driving too many customers to unregulated sites. The GC has accused the industry of exaggerating the impact of tighter regulations on online gambling: that these tighter regulations are driving customers to unregulated sites where they are unprotected. That may be the case, though it is difficult to say one way or the other; participants in surveys of online gambling are notorious for being “economical with the truth”. I know from my own experience that I have very little patience for sites that take me through a lengthy registration process, preferring those where it is quick and easy. Amazon invested heavily to make sure its customers could find what they were looking quickly and easily and could check out effortlessly. It is one of Amazon’s clear differentiating factors. If I were a gambler registering with an online gambling site and had to provide information about my income and assets, I would not bother. Instead, I’d find somewhere that offered the same service with less hassle. Perhaps it is because I am not a gambler that I have little motivation to persevere. However, there has to be some truth in the notion that the more difficult you make it for people to gamble, the more they will gravitate to places where it is easier to do so. If you take the two extremes — on the one hand, two identical sites with one regulated and one not and no difference in registration, making deposits, game play, withdrawals, etc. — a majority would play on the regulated site. On the other hand, consider the same two sites, one unregulated and the other regulated with a very complex registration process requiring large amounts of information, bank statements, games that play slowly, slow withdrawals requiring further information. I think you would have to agree that some players would get very frustrated with the second site and move to playing on the first. A trusted brand goes only so far. Clearly, I have exaggerated. However, in my experience, from a customer’s perspective, there is little advantage to a regulated site compared to an unregulated site. They only become concerned when the site refuses to pay out. Earlier in the year, a template letter was circulated to MPs, saying that bookmakers do not cause gambling harms and therefore should be exempt from asking their customers to provide proof of being able to afford to gamble. The letter was actually in support of the horse-racing industry, which derives some of its revenues directly or indirectly from gambling and has seen revenues plummet during the pandemic. The author of the letter argued that ‘skill-based’ betting on horse racing should be differentiated from the other gambling products available on online casinos, such as RNG games, as it is less likely to trigger addictive gambling habits. This misses the point entirely. Umpteen books have been written by or about gambling addicts. They all admit that they cannot stop gambling and will gamble on anything. If you remove one type of gambling or make it more difficult, addicts will find another form. Their gambling is about “action”: placing bets, taking risks, winning and losing, and of course, ultimately losing. I once attended a talk by a former executive of the National Bank of Canada, who had managed to gamble away millions by betting on everything: shares, options, commodities, horses, dogs, casinos, anywhere that would accept a bet. He did not care where or what or how much, he just wanted to gamble and could not stop. Something is getting lost in this debate. Parts of the industry are happy to point fingers at other segments and, in effect, say, “We are clean, while they are the biggest polluter, therefore we should not be subject to the same regulations”. This is short-sighted. Allow me to use the analogy of another form of addiction. In the absence of drinks with high levels of alcohol, which get them drunk faster, alcoholics will find other forms of alcohol. The reason that the alcohol in fragrances is denatured with Bitrex is that it tastes horrible and is put there to stop people from drinking perfume. If alcoholics cannot find gin, whiskey, etc., they will turn to the next strongest thing, wine. And if that is not available or is too expensive, they will turn to beer or cider. There is a very big risk that, in order to protect some gamblers from harm by tinkering with affordability checks or game speed or other game mechanisms, the GC will move the problem to other branches of the same tree. Yes, the industry needs to speak with one voice and it needs to use the tools it has available to minimise the harms a minority of customers experience. But in doing so, it must not overly impinge on the freedom and experience of the vast majority who are unharmed, but do genuinely enjoy the experience. The voice of the majority is unheard and it needs not to be.