An open letter written by UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) CEO Andrew Rhodes has criticised the alleged misuse of statistics by those with interests in the British gambling industry or its reform.
The regulator is particularly concerned with misuse of statistics around problem gambling and gambling-related harm by a diverse group of stakeholders. In his letter, Rhodes singled out operators, trade bodies, charities, media outlets and sporting venue owners for having done this.
“There are a wide range of opinions on the subject and they sometimes differ very greatly and can be equally strongly held,” he said. “Sometimes this can boil over into personal comments and even conspiracy theories as to what a given group, organisation or individual is believed to be seeking.
“Everyone has the right to put forward their argument or opinion and there has been little shortage of that in recent times. It is not for the Gambling Commission to attempt to referee all points in a debate – we would be highly unlikely to succeed – and it would not be a good use of resources.
“However, much as everyone is entitled to present their arguments, what is wholly unacceptable is the misuse of statistics to support that argument.”
UK gambling stakeholders – including lottery providers – received some clarity on the future of the betting industry back in April when the Gambling Act review White Paper was published after two years of development.
The UKGC and DCMS have now initiated consultations with stakeholders including operators, responsible gambling organisations and charities and sports organisations – however, the Commission has taken umbridge with the continued citation of stats.
For example, some types of gambling have been categorised by some as being ‘less risky’ than others, as problem gambling rates differ by activity – signs of problem gambling have been seen in 0.9% of National Lottery players, 2.8% of offline horse racing bettors, and 8.5% of online slots, casino, or bingo players show signs of problem gambling.
This use of stats to support arguments around problem gambling is of particular concern to the regulator. Rhodes observed that a “common misuse of statistics in recent months has been regarding the rate of problem gambling in Great Britain, and the conflation of problem gambling and gambling-related harm”.
Problem gambling and gambling-related harm are separate but linked experiences, and there is no single quantifiable measure of either, he asserted. Much of the misuse of stats has conflated these two terms, particularly regarding data from the Commission’s PGSI (Problem Gambling Severity Index).
Rhodes singled out statements varying on ‘99.7% of people who gamble do so without being harmed’ and ‘only 0.3% of gamblers are harmed’ as specific examples of statistical misuse.
Although not naming names, the UKGC Chief Exec remarked that ‘many have tried to suggest’ that the PGSI score is indicative only of those who gamble whilst it is actually indicative of the entire population.
Likewise, the Health Survey for England 2021 indicates that of those who gambled within the past year, 0.8% experienced problem gambling. Additionally, the 0.3% does not account for those ‘at risk’; 1.2% are at moderate risk and 4% at low risk.
On the other hand, Rhodes did also state that the problem gambling rate ‘overall is low’ compared to participation in the activity, despite his criticism of the use of repeated and sometimes skewed citation of the 0.3% figure.
The main issue with continuing use of stats, he argued, is that ‘beneath the surface of those numbers the picture is more complicated’ and so data must be understood and used properly.
Furthermore, the Commission has witnessed the misrepresentation of its trend data and surveys, in the comparison of datasets. Misleading comparisons arise from when authors do not disclose “the proper context of how the data was collected and added their own caveats on reports”.
Rhodes concluded: “Even with a relatively low proportion of people experiencing problem gambling we must remember that this can and does have catastrophic consequences and equates to hundreds of thousands of people directly affected and a greater number amongst friends, families and others.
“The debate around gambling is often a fierce one, but nobody is well-served by statistics being misused to further an argument.
“I therefore ask anyone commenting on this area to take a greater degree of care to ensure they are using evidence and statistics correctly, accurately and in the proper context and with any necessary caveats applied.”