A compulsory levy on the gambling industry is needed to address the “vastly underestimated” harm it is causing to society, according to academics.
Major investment and an overhaul of UK gambling laws are needed to alleviate the growing economic burden of gambling on society as it is increasingly recognised as a public health issue, the study, published in the BMJ, said.
The extent and cost of gambling has been significantly underestimated in Britain, which spent less than £1.5 million on prevention activity last year for a population of 65 million, according to the paper Gambling and public health: we need policy action to prevent harm.
The time now is for action to reduce harms which is going to require a much more significant level of funding than is currently available
In contrast, New Zealand had an annual budget of more than £9.3 million for prevention for a population of 4.7 million.
The academics, from England, Scotland, Wales and Australia, are calling for a revision of the 2005 Gambling Act, a compulsory levy on industry to generate funds and a shift in responsibility for gambling from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to the Department of Health and Social Care.
According to the paper there are now 33 million active online gambling accounts in Britain, while the prevalence of online gambling has increased from less than 1% in 1999 to 9% in 2016.
It also notes that 14% of children aged 11-16 have been found to have gambled over a week, with about 55,000 reporting problems from their gambling behaviour.
It said gambling was now associated with wide-ranging harms that extended beyond individuals to families, communities and societies, and included financial problems, relationship breakdowns, abuse or neglect of partners and children and adverse childhood experiences that disturbed relationships and educational progress.
Dr Heather Wardle, assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the paper’s lead author, said: “Gambling harms have been vastly underestimated. It is placing major burdens on resources, relationships and health.
Professor Gerda Reith, the University of Glasgow’s Professor of Social Sciences and an author on the paper, said: “As a society we need to face up to the broad environment that gambling harm is produced in – the role of the industry, as well as the policy climate that they operate in.
“Gambling doesn’t just affect an individual. The impacts ripple out beyond them to their family, friends, communities and society.
“Not only does this have major implications for our health services but it is also a social justice issue.
“Gambling harms disproportionately affect poorer or more vulnerable groups in ways that can exacerbate existing inequalities
“We urgently need a marked change in approach, and one that is long overdue.”
A Government spokesman said: “While millions of people enjoy gambling responsibly, protecting people from the risks of gambling-related harm is absolutely vital.
“Operators must adhere to strict rules protecting children and vulnerable people, and the Gambling Commission has strong powers to ensure they comply.
“We are also expanding specialist support for gambling addiction through the NHS Long Term Plan and Public Health England are committed to reviewing gambling-related harm.”