Gambling on Trial: An Ethical Verdict

Gambling on Trial: An Ethical Verdict

In an extended essay on, Sam Miranda and Ben Kirby discussed ethical perspectives – both positive and critical – on gambling in the UK. In this editorial, Sam reflects on his findings and considers the ethical questions faced by professionals in the gambling sector.

Gambling on Trial: An Ethical VerdictIt is no secret that the international gambling industry is beset by serious PR challenges. From my experience working as a writer and content strategist for the UK gambling sector, commercial gambling in Britain is subject to especially toxic critique from the media, lobbyists and political figures.

While proponents of gambling often take a consumerist or libertarian perspective in pointing to the economic contributions made by the gaming industry, we owe it to ourselves to engage in debates surrounding the ethical status of commercial gambling.

Given the number of newspaper inches devoted to gambling in recent months – predictably focusing on addiction and the ‘dangers’ of certain gambling practices – it feels like an appropriate time to re-assert my position vis-à-vis ethical standards for professionals in the industry. Objectively speaking, we promote and sell a service with the potential to cause harm – but this is not to say we should be condemned out of hand. However, it does mean that we have a responsibility to meet our detractors in the field and present our defence in a reasoned way.

The popular debate concerning ethics in gambling is inhibited by the inability of competing voices to sustain a proper dialogue, inevitably leading to sensationalism. So how do we bring an end to this shouting match and initiate useful discussion? First and foremost, we need to place the current state of affairs in context.

Gerda Reith (Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow) attributes the ascendance of gambling in the U.K. to a number of factors. These include the rise of libertarianism and consumerism in the working classes after the Second World War, the relaxing of anti-gambling laws in the 1970s and the increased availability of gambling afforded by the rise of internet, TV and mobile gaming. The increased popularity of gambling throughout the 20th Century has gone some way to cleansing its sordid reputation, but the market is still regarded with contempt and suspicion from some quarters.

One criticism of the gambling industry holds that the impact of problem gambling is felt most acutely by the poorest in society. This view has sustained a dominant discourse in media representation of gambling in the last few years, with politicians and news sources alike lambasting casino operators and bookmakers for setting up shop in deprived areas and targeting low-income gamblers with fixed odd betting terminals.

Proponents of the gambling industry have rebuked this complaint by appealing to player responsibility – pointing out that, like drinking, sky-diving and purchasing junk food, gambling is simply a consumer activity with certain risks attached. They argue that players should be primarily accountable for these risks.

Another argument points to the imperative of economic growth in a commercial sector. Businesses need to make a profit, governments need tax revenue and lottery funds and local economies need development and employment opportunities. Consequently, if a minority of consenting adults are irresponsible enough to ‘consume’ excessively, it is not the remit of the gambling industry or the state to intervene. Furthermore, many would contend that the societal burden shouldered as a result of problem gambling is far lighter than that imposed by, say, the medical and penal expense of dealing with drug or alcohol addiction.

Clearly, none of these arguments are without merit and the ethical question remains a thorny one for someone working in the gambling sector. From my perspective, it is perfectly reasonable for a responsibly-managed gambling industry to operate and prosper in the UK. Gambling contributes roughly as much to the global economy as the international pharmaceutical industry (around $300 billion) and at a time of economic instability, it seems absurd to hamstring or ban such a lucrative market. It also strikes me as grossly unfair that gambling comes under sustained attack from the media when other – arguably more harmful – vices escape this level of scrutiny.

Ultimately, we are a market that thrives on the libertarian spirit of modern consumerism; we maintain that it is the right of consenting adults to risk their wealth in a safe and entertaining context. However, many of the marketing tactics conducted by gambling operators – particularly online where government regulation is lax – are ethically suspect.

For instance, registered users on the mailing lists of online casinos often choose to ‘opt out’ of play after a string of losses, closing their accounts, blocking promotional emails and allowing their bank balances to recover. However, these players’ inboxes will be bombarded with adverts and ‘bonus’ incentives a day after their exclusion period elapses (typically one month). These individuals may well have struggled with problem play, only to have their recovery process hampered by cynical marketing. This kind of aggressive advertising is unacceptable.

In sum, the gambling industry has every right to exist but must be made accountable for its actions. Like any other business, we have an obligation to shelter our players from the potential risks associated with our services/products. This means co-operating with reasonable government regulation and self-regulating our business/marketing practices to prevent excesses.

Dr. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University provides a good benchmark for the future of gambling, calling on our industry to develop new protocols to protect vulnerable players. Moving forward, we need to take these measures while remaining true to our core principals of championing personal liberty. In this way, as an ethically responsible industry, we can have our cake and eat it.

Sam is a gambling industry writer and content strategist. Follow him on Twitter
Sam_Author_PicSam Miranda is senior editor at Right Casino Media. He has five years of experience covering the online gaming industry, and reviews operator rooms hereIf you wish to submit your own editorial please contact Bill Beatty.