Big Debate – Part 1: Why the ABB code of practice is part of the problem, by Dr. Charles Livingstone

Big Debate – Part 1: Why the ABB code of practice is part of the problem, by Dr. Charles Livingstone

Thursday, January 8, 2015 Totally Gaming

A recently-published report by leading Australian academic Dr. Charles Livingstone was heavily critical of the Association of British Bookmakers’ (ABB) Code for Responsible Gambling and Player Protection. In the first of a two-part ‘Big Debate’, Dr Livingstone explains to why he believes the ABB’s self-regulation and player protection measures are of “low efficacy”.

The ABB’s campaigns director, Hilary Douglas, will respond to Dr. Livingstone’s words in a separate article on tomorrow (Friday).

"Prof. Griffiths’ evaluation misses a major opportunity to recommend the adoption of measures that could reduce harm." - Dr. Livingstone

The ill-defined concept of ‘responsible gambling’ (RG) was originally conceived by gambling businesses to demonstrate that they were addressing the dangers of gambling, writes Dr. Livingstone. However, RG in practice tends to see gambling problems as formed by the actions of flawed individuals, rather than accepting that gambling machines, such as fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), are dangerous products needing careful regulation.

Responsible gambling codes of conduct are now common in many jurisdictions. As the concern about FOBTs rose, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) launched its own code, developed with the assistance of Prof. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University.

The ABB’s code is unremarkable. It makes a virtue out of the necessity of enforcing the law, e.g., ensuring that under-age gambling does not occur. It also incorporates standard RG measures such as staff training, signage and self-exclusion.

Colleagues and I recently reviewed the evidence for RG measures. We found that the evidence base for almost all such measures is inadequate or close to non-existent, and for the most part of poor quality.

The ABB code also provides for mandatory warnings to pop-up on FOBT screens when users have reached time (30 minutes) and money (£250) limits. Interestingly, £250, is about 53% of the UK’s average weekly earnings including bonuses. When the warning does appear, the machine stops for 30 seconds. Then the user is free to carry on. These limits can also be over-ridden by voluntary limits.

The available evidence strongly indicates that such ‘soft’ pre-commitment systems have, at best, only very modest effects.

Recently, Prof. Griffiths produced a ‘preliminary evaluation’ of the ABB’s code. This in itself is unusual. Evaluation of one’s own advice is not good practice.

Importantly, Griffiths’ presentation of data to discuss the effects of limit setting features is disappointing. It is difficult, in my opinion, to determine the reliability of Griffiths’ conclusions and reasoning in the absence of detailed data. Almost no statistical analysis is provided beyond estimates of ‘typical’ patterns of expenditure, etc. This severely limits the usefulness of the limited data presented.

Griffiths’ rather positive evaluation may, I believe, be attributable to his enthusiasm for measures on which he appears to have advised the ABB. A more critical evaluation could offer scope for constructive suggestions to fundamentally improve the code.

The preliminary evaluation fails to identify, let alone address the harm minimisation effects of the ABB’s interventions. In a clear misunderstanding of harm minimisation and public health principles, ‘responsible gambling’ is presented as a catch-all rubric within which harm minimisation is fully contained.

There is plenty that can and in my view should be done to address the serious problems associated with gambling harm, including comprehensive pre-commitment systems and reduced maximum bets. Griffiths’ evaluation misses a major opportunity to recommend the adoption of measures that could reduce harm. This is a pity, not least for the many thousands of British gamblers and their families, friends, and employers who will all be harmed by FOBTs today.


Author information:

Dr Charles Livingstone is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, Melbourne Australia. He holds the degrees of Master of Economics (UNE) and PhD (Melb), and has researched in health programme evaluation, health financing, public health, and since 1998 in critical gambling research specialising in gambling policy reform and electronic gambling machine characteristics and impacts. He recently undertook a review of the ABB code of practice and Prof. Griffiths’ preliminary evaluation thereof, commissioned and funded by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. Please click here for further information.

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