Why the media are always wrong about Britain’s ‘soaring’ gambling problem

Consider these three claims. In 2004, it was predicted that the number of problem gamblers would double to 750,000 if the Gambling Bill became law.

In 2013, it was reported that the number of problem gamblers had doubled in the previous six years and had reached 450,000.

Last month, it was reported that the number of problem gamblers had doubled in the last three years and had reached 336,000.

How does the number of problem gamblers keep doubling without it increasing? Let’s take a look…

Back in 2004, when that nice Mr Blair was trying to liberalise the gambling market, a prediction was made…

Public Health Association chairman Geoff Rayner said the number of addicts could double if the plans went ahead… He highlighted research by the Henley Centre, a strategic marketing consultancy, which estimated the number of gamblers could double to 750,000 people.

You don’t need to be Carol Vorderman to work out that there were approximately 375,000 problem gamblers in 2004.

Mr Blair got his liberalisation (or most of it) and we have had gambling advertising on TV and a somewhat more relaxed approach to casinos ever since. We have also seen the rise of fixed-odds betting terminals and online gambling, both of which were supposed to drag us to perdition.

What happened next? The popular narrative is that there was an epidemic of problem gambling. Take this, from the Independent in January 2013, for example…

A huge increase in gambling addicts will make Britain’s obsession with online betting a £2bn business. New evidence reveals that the number of people in danger of becoming problem gamblers has reached nearly a million, while hardcore addicts have doubled in six years to almost 500,000.

What the Independent calls ‘hardcore addicts’, the British Gambling Prevalence Survey calls ‘problem gamblers’ and it is the number of problem gamblers that was estimated in the 2010 survey. The Independent was citing that survey, although it exaggerated the number. As it noted later in the article, the survey’s mid-point estimate was 450,000.

So not actually a doubling, but still a rise, right? Not necessarily. The only firm conclusion drawn in the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey was that there were between 254,900 and 593,400 problem gamblers in the UK. The wide gap between the low and high ends of the estimate meant it was uncertain whether there had been any rise at all since the previous survey of 2007.

Nevertheless, a narrative had been set in motion that problem gambling had doubled and it was all the fault of online gambling/fixed odds betting terminals/advertising.

Last month, the Times reported (not for the first time) that the number of problem gamblers had doubled again.

The number of people with a severe gambling problem has almost doubled to 336,000 in the past three years, according to the Gambling Commission.

But hang on a moment. 336,000 is less than it was in 2004 when Geoff Rayner made his gloomy prediction — and the rate of problem gambling has supposedly doubled twice since then.

Fortunately, there is a simple explanation. There are not enough problem gamblers for surveys to estimate the number with any precision. Since 1999, when the first survey was conducted, the rate has ranged from 0.3 per cent to 0.9 per cent of the adult population. The high of 0.9 per cent was recorded in 2010 and the low of 0.3 per cent was recorded in 2013. There is no pattern, no trend, but there is random fluctuation.

So this is what happens: when the rate appears to go up, the media report it. When it appears to go down, they don’t. The Independent compared the 2010 estimate to the 2007 estimate. The Times compared the 2016 estimate to the 2013 estimate. Nobody compared the 2013 estimate to the 2010 estimate, but if they had they could have claimed that the rate of problem gambling had more than halved.

None of it means anything. In practice, the estimates have such wide confidence intervals (or margins of error, if you like) that one year’s data is statistically indistinguishable from another. Give or take a few fractions of a percentage point, the rate of problem gambling in Britain is 0.5 per cent and has been ever since we started trying to measure it.

  • Zeus

    £10 says it’s 0.6%.

  • MichtyMe

    Why is the words ‘gambling’, ‘gamble’, ‘gambler’ used here. Those words imply an some uncertainty as to the outcome but there is no doubt. The industry wins and the punter loses. The laws of statistical regularity and of the inertia of large numbers mean that the gross margins of the gambling industry are unchanging, unique in business. The correct word is gaming, an entertaining way to relieve yourself of surplus cash.

    • Grumbledog

      I won £50,000 backing Brexit and £45,000 backing Trump.

      • Zeus

        No you didn’t.

        • Grumbledog

          Yes I did.

  • Sean L

    It was far more civilised without advertising. People were still free to gamble but without being incited by false promises all the time. What kind of perverse mind would want to encourage such behaviour? There were good reasons for the curve.Blair should have left it alone. The whole thing was thoroughly corrupt – socialism in action: the opposite of the theory.