Industry must do more to tackle detrimental impact of gambling addiction

The biggest increase of online gambling of any age group last year was millennials (24-35)

It's said that gambling has been around since before written history, with ‘gambling houses' having been prevalent in China since the first millennium BC.

The different forms of gambling that have developed and evolved across the centuries are etched throughout our history, including within the masterpiece ‘The Cardsharps' (1594) by Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. For many people today, gambling is more than a culture, it's in their DNA and they use it to educe human emotions that enrich their lives.

But while recognising all that is good about the industry, including its economic contribution and job creation, there has not been enough focus on challenging and addressing the detrimental impact that gambling addiction is having across many different societal groups.

Gambling addiction is an issue that for too long has been brushed under the carpet, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. RTE's documentary “All Bets Are Off” which aired last month brought the full extent of that destruction to bear in homes throughout Ireland. The programme laid out personal and professional tragedy, articulating the need for empathy and compassion and set out the case for more regulation of the industry.

A report by H2 Gambling Capital stated that Ireland had per capita gambling losses of €470 (£414) in 2016, the third largest in the world behind Australia and Singapore with total cumulative losses of €2.1 billion (£1.85bn).

The picture in the UK is much the same, with its regulatory body, the Gambling Commission, reporting in 2017 that the number of over 16s deemed to have a gambling problem rising by a third over a three-year period. There is no coincidence in the availability of user friendly mobile apps and increasing numbers of younger people gambling online.

Indeed, a Swedish gaming company stated that the biggest increase of online gambling of any age group last year was millennials (24-35) and while every liberal, autonomous and transparent society should welcome that opportunity of choice, structures must be put in place to ensure that it supports responsible gambling.

Cambridge Analytica's abuse of its relationship with Facebook has brought into sharp focus, for us all, how personal information from social media users could be used cynically. Like other sectors, the gambling industry has come under scrutiny regarding the information it holds on customers with claims that it could be used to predict consumer habits and personalise promotions.

The industry now appears to be at a very critical juncture. New and emerging technology will transform the level of knowledge that businesses have online and they must use that information to support commitments to responsible gambling.

At a business leaders event in Belfast last week, Nell Watson, a senior advisor to the Harvard Kennedy School and a tech entrepreneur who specialises in machine intelligence, passionately advocated how these technologies must be used to affect positive change in the business community.

Her analogy of the relationship between machines and humanity was not one of competing forces or two runaway freight trains bound by a destiny of collision, it was more akin to the relationship between that of a parent and child to support and nurture positive evolution. Nell's vision and commitment is to influence that process to ensure society teaches and programmes machines to replicate the virtues and characteristics that set human's apart.

Working with industry partners, the City University of London is looking at how new technology can be developed to detect the early warning signs of problem gambling. The programme would seek to collect information about the amount of time players spend playing, how much and when they deposit money, what games they play and when, and how much they stake.

The program “PS-EDS” would analyse the data detecting bad gambling habits before they develop into a fully-fledged gambling problem. Taking all these factors into account, the technology's creators, Kindred, claim it can predict a gambling problem in a given individual with 87 per cent accuracy.

There would be many challenges with the implementation of this technology not least how it would be used and communicated as well as the data privacy that would influence it. However, it is an example of how the industry could and should realise its commitments to responsible gambling and help address this growing issue within our communities.

Like any form of addiction there will be no quick fix. The approach must be multi layered and collaborative and the industry should work with Governments, in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere to help facilitate a more sustainable sector.

Governments and organisations are starting to take notice. In the coming days Teresa May is expected to give an update on the tightening of rules surrounding fixed odds betting terminals while in Ireland Junior Justice Minister David Stanton has set up a working group to review its position regarding legislation.

On this issue successive Irish governments have been accused by RTE's documentary of being too slow to develop its approach.But we know in Ireland that public empowerment is a huge driving force for change. All the more reason for the industry to ensure it is prepared, ready and willing to engage.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Paul McErlean

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