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Case update 20 March 2024

Breaking out of the gambling industry’s lethal frame

GambleAware is a charity that claims it helps people keep safe from gambling harms. But you can’t help anyone if you just miss the point.

It didn’t take long for the gambling industry to respond after we teamed up with Annie Ashton and Will Prochaska to call on the Charity Commission to investigate GambleAware. For more than a decade, GambleAware has been the loudest voice in the conversation about gambling harm, pushing the industry message that gambling is healthy and inevitable in defiance of expert opinion.

This is an industry that makes most of its money from gamblers classified as “at risk”, so it’s hardly surprising the industry would push back at a challenge to such a useful megaphone as GambleAware.

But it’s something of a surprise how completely the gambling deregulation enthusiast Christopher Snowdon – Head of Lifestyle Economics at the rightwing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairsmissed the point of our challenge. The problems start in the headline, which falls for the industry’s discredited narrative that gambling can be either “responsible” or a “problem”. And then it gets worse.

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Snowdon starts by trying to undercut Will’s expertise, and then proceeds to focus on an 18-word tweet about a one-minute video instead of the substantial arguments of our challenge.

Our challenge points out that GambleAware’s work is based on a framing taken lock stock and barrel from the industry. That framing starts from the position that gambling is healthy and inevitable, and that gambling harm should be addressed by educating individuals so they can gamble “responsibly” – not by encouraging people to stop gambling or reforming an industry that preys on addiction.

This analysis is hotly contested by experts in the field, making it increasingly difficult for GambleAware to work in a sector that understands initiatives to reduce gambling harm must operate in opposition to the industry, rather than in lockstep with it. This means that the NHS and a host of academics have rejected GambleAware’s funding to work on treatment and research, and the education and information it provides is fatally one-sided.

If you start from the position that gambling is healthy and the industry is working hard to help those unfortunate individuals who have some sort of problem, then perhaps it’s hard to understand a challenge that rejects that framing from the outset.

But gambling is a multibillion-pound industry with deep political connections. It’s an industry that makes 60% of its profits from the 5% of customers who are classified as ‘problem gamblers’ or ‘at risk’. And it’s an industry that is implicated in between 117 and 496 suicides a year. When you listen to the stories of people whose lives have been shattered, it’s hard to understand why the Charity Commission hasn’t stripped GambleAware of its charitable status already.