What’s Wrong With Responsible Gambling?

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At the midpoint of Problem Gambling Awareness Month on Wednesday, Northeastern Law School’s Public Health Advocacy Institute brought together a panel of academics and advocates, mostly from the U.K., for a webinar dubbed “It’s Not the Dough, It’s the Dopamine: The Dangerous Myth of the Responsible Gambling Model.”

Right there in the title, one could tell it would be rough sledding for the concept of responsible gambling and its attendant messaging, something that’s considered extremely helpful at best and benign at worst in most circles. Richard Dynard, a Northeastern law professor well-versed in the travails of Big Tobacco, began by citing several parallels between the cigarette and gambling industries, including technological innovation, widespread marketing, purveyors proclaiming themselves to be part of the solution to any negative side effects, and framing the decision of whether to smoke or wager as a personal choice. (Another legal vice, alcohol, would later be introduced along similar lines.)

Jim Orford, a former professor of clinical and community psychology at the University of Birmingham in England, went on to talk about how widespread legal wagering abroad had become in the past 60-plus years.

“When I was a youngster, the only thing you could bet on was horse racing, and it was illegal to bet on horse racing away from the track,” he said, noting how attitudes toward gambling shifted from “tolerated” to “normalized” and “commercialized” in the early 21st century.

In what would serve as a common theme throughout the three-hour discussion, Orford regretted that so much gambling industry money had financed supposedly independent research and messaging, and he included academia as a field that had allowed itself to be infiltrated by such financing. He closed by urging Britain to rewrite its gambling laws to “acknowledge that gambling is not an ordinary business,” but rather an addictive one.

‘Shame and stigma’

In a moving testimonial, panelist Liz Ritchie, whose son Jack committed suicide at 24 while in the throes of gambling addiction, lamented how little information she received as a parent about the potential harms of gambling. She then noted that in her son’s suicide note, he made it clear “that it was gambling” that motivated him to kill himself and that he felt “he would never recover and felt it was all his fault.”

She then spoke of a “switching in the brain when gambling goes from a voluntary interest to an involuntary compulsion,” calling it “a major psychiatric condition.”

Will Porchaska, Ritchie’s colleague with the organization Gambling With Lives, spoke next. Like other panelists, he took issue with RG messaging’s emphasis on personal responsibility and the notion that gambling is a behavior that can be easily controlled by most people, adding that “the responsible gambling narrative puts shame and stigma on people who are suffering from a psychological disorder.” 

Recovering gambling addict and current gambling counselor Harry Levant closed out the discussion by saying that “dismantling responsible gambling” and replacing it with a public health approach was his ultimate goal, something that might involve the explicit labeling of gambling as addictive or harmful to a large swath of the population instead of a smaller, highly vulnerable percentage.

A difference in approach

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, was among those listening in on Wednesday. When asked afterward about Porchaska’s “shame and stigma” quote and whether the industry and its regulators could do a better job of making it clear that gambling addiction is a psychological disorder, Whyte told Sports Handle, “We can always do a better job of increasing public awareness of problem gambling as a preventable, treatable disorder. That said, there is certainly individual responsibility as well, and I don’t think RG messaging done right shames people with gambling problems.”

Pointing to the prevalence of national and state helplines as part of RG/PG outreach, Whyte added, “We work hard to make sure and let people know that help and hope is available. The vast majority of people with gambling problems that we talk to are supportive of responsible gambling messaging and are working on these campaigns — and we’re incorporating their feedback. To say that responsible gambling messaging is designed to stigmatize people is wrong on its face, but also fails to realize that much of it comes from groups like ours that include people in recovery.”

As for working with betting companies and other pro-wagering forces to get the word out, Whyte said, “I believe we are pursuing a public health approach. I just think it looks a lot different than what people on this webinar believe it to be. I believe that everyone is a stakeholder and you need to pursue all levers, which includes working with the gambling industry as well as state governments. We try to help organize all the different groups who have a role to play. 

“I firmly believe our RG and PG efforts are very clearly aligned with a mainstream public health approach. We don’t work with the industry because they’re forcing us to or we have to, we do it because we want to.”


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