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15 March 2022

With gambling reform there can be no happy medium

Stricter regulation of the betting industry is long overdue, but reformers must reckon with the statistical tyranny of the bell curve.

In a working life spent reading and writing about social issues, I often come across a particular kind of problem that, as far as I know, has no name. I’ve decided to call it the problem of normal distribution.

The normal distribution is also known as the “bell curve” because the graph it produces looks rather like a bell. It is a continuous probability distribution that is symmetrical around the mean – meaning, in essence, that most of the data points cluster around the middle and, the further a value is from the mean, the less likely it is to occur.

It is found again and again in the sciences. The sizes of snowflakes, lifetimes of light bulbs and the milk production of cows are all normally distributed. So are human physical traits such as height, shoe size and birth weight. Social phenomena are a little more complicated, but even so, the normal distribution is often a good approximation for what we see across human populations.

And the problem of normal distribution is this: when you impose some change on a population, different people will experience it differently. It is very, very difficult to design a policy that will hone in on just one group of people at just one point on the graph, leaving the rest of the curve unchanged.

Take an issue like gambling. Most people are not at risk of becoming problem gamblers. There are some people, like me, who have no interest in gambling (I’ve been to the races a couple of times, and enjoyed the booze, but found the actual racing boring). Many other people are happy to limit themselves to the occasional lottery ticket or flutter on the football. But it is estimated that somewhere between 0.5 per cent and 4 per cent of the population are problem gamblers.

On 4 March, the coroner conducting an inquest into the suicide of 24-year-old gambling addict Jack Ritchie found that insufficient public health information, poor regulation and inadequate treatment contributed to Ritchie’s death. As a teenager, Ritchie got into the habit of going to the bookies and placing small bets on slot machines. Later, he became addicted to gambling websites and ran up terrible debts.

A government white paper on the UK’s gambling laws is expected within the coming weeks, and a group of senior NHS clinicians who are experts in gambling addiction are calling for greater regulation. Jackpot: How Gambling Conquered Britain, a new book by the Guardian’s Rob Davies, explores the reasoning behind these calls, revealing the ways in which the industry has become more and more adept at attracting new consumers as it has moved online, to the detriment of those, like Ritchie, who are vulnerable to becoming problem gamblers.

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Davies describes the negative characterisations made about him by some of those within the gambling industry:

“I’m a ‘bookie-basher’ bent on spoiling harmless fun, a typical Guardian metropolitan elitist sanctimoniously taking swipes at a legitimate industry out of sheer puritanism, snobbery or a mixture of the two.”

This image of the moralising Guardian reader reminds me very much of the dreaded figure of the temperance campaigner – a middle-class Victorian with a starched collar and a Bible held aloft. The no-fun brigade is to be found in all historical eras.

But what’s often forgotten about the temperance movement is that it was actually, in part, a movement against domestic violence. In an era when married women had no right to own their own property or maintain financial independence from their husbands, being married to a drunk was a disaster. Even if he didn’t knock you about – and remember that this was long before the creation of women’s refuges – he could easily spend a week’s wages down the pub and leave you with nothing to feed the children.

Forget the starched collars for a moment and look at temperance posters with an eye for their more subtle message. For instance, the feminist point is apparent in one poster titled “Wet or dry?”, produced for an American referendum on alcohol prohibition, which shows a grinning brewer telling us to “Vote wet for my sake”, while a woman clutching her young children begs us to “Vote dry for mine”.

I mention this historical example not because I think we ought to ban alcohol, but because it offers an example of the problem of normal distribution at work. We might all agree that alcoholic husbands are a problem, but how do we zoom in on that far end of the normal distribution, while leaving the rest of the population unaffected? There is research to suggest that prohibition may have worked far better than most popular histories would have us believe, reducing both alcohol consumption and some forms of alcohol-related mortality in America. It also had a variety of unintended consequences in terms of both public health and crime, and unnecessarily restricted the freedom of people whose drinking was unproblematic.

Bear this in mind in relation to gambling regulation. It’s true that gambling is probably as old as humanity itself. It’s also true that restrictions on gambling are extremely common across time and place, often imposed by governments or religious institutions, or else in a more informal way by local communities. And most Britons would support greater restrictions – for instance, one 2021 YouGov survey found that 77 per cent of adults support a ban on gambling ads on radio and TV before the watershed, and 86 per cent would not oppose a total ban on all gambling ads, via any medium, at any time.

Restrictions on the gambling industry are unfair on the happy gamblers, but also desperately needed by the problem gamblers, and even more so by their families. Good luck to any policymaker who wants to try and affect one without also inadvertently affecting the other. Therein lies the problem of normal distribution.

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