Harm markers, when used correctly, are a method of triggering an alert to an operator that one of their customers may be exhibiting signs of potentially addictive behaviours and patterns. They also serve a secondary purpose of allowing authorities to keep track of how many gambling addicts there are in the regulated market. However, like most aspects of the debate on gambling regulation, harm markers have been hijacked by anti-gambling activists to privilege the hypothesis that 1) gambling is an indiscriminately harmful activity, and 2) that addiction is rooted in exposure to the product, rather than the cognitive operation of the addict. In short, that innocuous behaviours can be considered a sign of a gambling addiction, and that therefore, anyone and everyone can become a gambling addict.
I firmly believe there are two distinct groups of individuals, as distinguished by numerous studies in neurology and psychiatry: healthy gamblers, and gambling addicts. The harm markers conjured up by the anti-gambling lobby, and the endless list there seems to be of them, does very well at blurring that very clear neurological boundary. Addicts deserve to have the best clinical resources and treatment directed at them, not to be caught in the Government affordability net with everybody else, being used as a means to illustrate a false and exaggerated analysis of the harm gambling can cause.
Delfabbro et al (2023) list a total of 23 harm markers for gambling. Multiple payment methods seems to be a sensible indicator – customers who have multiple debit cards on their accounts in a possible attempt to maximise the reach of their available cash. But then there are other harm markers, such as ‘high amounts at set times (e.g payday)’, which is a well-documented, normal consumer behaviour across all financial transactions, gambling or otherwise. Indeed, a good portion of the harm markers used across various platforms apply to most of the population, whether they gamble or not. These harm markers are a product of intellectual dishonesty, trying to lump people’s casual lifestyle choices in with serious clinical indicators of addiction. This has created an absurdly wide and vague definition of a very specific condition, so much so that nobody from the anti-gambling lobby has yet to ascertain what the term ‘problem gambling’ actually means. Worryingly, the generalised nature of the harm markers are just one element of the problem.
The algorithms used for flagging up harm markers allow gambling operators to perform various interventions in stages (classified generally as identify, interact, and evaluate). They vary from early generic customer interactions, such as emails that signpost to gambling management tools, to medium tailored, like initiating a phone call with the customer, all the way to what is deemed to be ‘strong customer interactions’, which involve the blocking of offers and incentives. This is very hard to argue against if it allows you to identify, and ultimately help, genuine addicts. But this is where the second problem with harm markers emerges; there is no defined severity score – it is left entirely to the individual operator. Therefore, until the operator decides as such, if indeed they do, the harm marker ‘has taken an attempt on his/her life’ is equally weighted with ‘gambles at night’. And so it is that it’s perfectly possible for someone to acquire a certain score the algorithm deems worthy of ‘strong’ intervention, without ever exhibiting any serious clinical symptoms of addiction, such as continuously large deposits, suicidal thoughts, and compulsively chasing losses. Indeed, the freedom given to the operator leaves the entire system open to abuse, as many consumers have already discovered.
It is therefore rather disingenuous of the Government to suggest affordability checks will be frictionless when they have all the hallmarks of returning the same conclusion as harm markers: endless swathes of people exercising their legal right to spend their money as they see fit being caught up in restrictions to treat an addiction they do not have. Indeed, using this highly cautious approach in trying to identify addicts actually distorts the ability for harm markers to actually catch them, as Blaszczynski et al (2004) observed when evaluating responsible gambling frameworks: “Therefore, it is difficult to obtain a clear estimate of the qualitative level of severity, harm or numbers of individuals that might require assistance simply by evaluating their gambling behaviours.”
Clearly there needs to be a drastic overhaul of what actually qualifies as a harm marker, and which harm markers are more severe than others. With this ought to come a change of language that doesn’t seek to demonise gambling at any opportunity; ‘symptoms of addiction’ would promote a more clinical approach to gambling addiction than ‘harm markers’, which suggests gambling is something you can ‘get’ from using the product ‘too much’. As is so often the case, the Government fails to recognise the elephant in the room when they designed this regulation. There is evidence that affordability checks currently being utilised by larger bookmakers, already on the same overreaching path as harm markers, are at least partly responsible for a rise in black market activity. Surely the goal should be to keep those who are addicted in the regulated market where harm markers can then do their job of flagging them up and allowing them to get the help they need. There are no harm markers in the black market.
Where the heart of the debate around harm markers and affordability really lies is with the origin of the harm markers themselves. The anti-gambling zealots have done very well at perpetuating this charade that the problem lies with the gambling product, never being held accountable enough to be reminded that this diagnosis does not allow for the fact 99.6% of people who gamble do so unharmed. If exposure to addictive agents was the cause, in the modern era of rampant consumerism, why are we all not addicted to something? When you look more closely at all of the harm markers, you will see that none of them are specific to the product or because of the product – they are entirely to do with the behaviour the individual exhibits towards the product. This ties in with the GCF’s argument on addiction that those who are addicted have different neurological circuitry that means they do not process dopamine as a healthy bettor would.
Evidentially, the harm does not derive from gambling – the harm derives, ironically, from how we classify that harm. It’s important we work to put the brakes on this deeply flawed framework now, for one of the few certainties in life is that nanny state regulation will always result in yet more regulation.
By Abbie MacGregor
Delfabbro, Paul, Parke, Jonathan, Catania, Maris, Chikh, Karim, Behavioural Markers of Harm and their Potential in Identifying Product Risk in Online Gambling, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (2023).
Blaszczynski, Alex, Ladouceur, Robert, Shaffer, Howard, A Science-Based Framework for Responsible Gambling: The Reno Model, Journal of Gambling Studies, (2004), Vol. 20(3), pp.301-317.