In 1966 Stephen Stills informed us, “There’s something happening here… but what it is ain’t exactly clear.”  The vagueness of the lyrics turned Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth into a timeless protest song that seems to speak to just about every issue of the last 55 years.

Despite its ubiquity, I doubt anyone expected to see the opening lines used as a metaphor for the current debate swirling around responsible gaming and problem gambling. But here we are. Something is happening, but what it is, is still unclear.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

To say lawmakers and gambling operators have shirked their responsibility for the bulk of the legalized gambling era is an understatement. With few exceptions, gambling laws and regulations have done little to minimize the social harms of gambling. Instead, they’ve focused almost exclusively on maximizing the economic benefits.

As a brief aside, is proud to have founded the 1% Initiative alongside the National Council on Problem Gambling.

The good news is that’s changing. At least in some quarters. But in many places, the damage has already been done.

Decades of apathy has led to well-meaning but half-hearted and underfunded attempts to curb problem gambling. It’s also left researchers in the field playing catch-up as they try to get a handle on what is an extremely complex issue.

Recently, governments (mostly in Europe) have decided to step in and force the issue. From advertising bans to betting limits, European countries are taking matters into their own hands. Many of the policies have been roundly criticized as ineffective or even counterproductive—the latest being a £2 stake limit on online slot machines.

The immediate reaction from the industry was the policy would shift legal play to illegal markets. That’s a siren song belted out whenever an industry-unfriendly policy is discussed.

If only it were that black and white. But it’s more complex than that. And the impact and overall success of responsible gambling policies are more nuanced than that.

A Tale of Two Poker Games

During the early days of the poker boom, I was a regular participant in home games.

One semi-regular tournament I frequented tended to attract about 30 or so participants, almost all of whom were casual players. Most of them played online poker – it was the poker boom after all.

Another weekly game routinely attracted 50-plus players (a mix of tournament and cash game players) and the lineup was far more competitive. It was also filled with online poker players, but unlike the other game, a lot of these people were winners.

The number of participants in both games started to shrink following the passage of UIGEA in 2006 and the subsequent withdrawal from the US market by some of the bigger online poker sites. But the percentage of online poker players shrank more in the casual game. UIGEA had little effect on the online poker habits of players in the more competitive game.

Both games persisted for years, but after Black Friday, the casual home game was typically a single table, and at one point, there were two known online poker players among the core group of about 15 players. The game has since disbanded.

Conversely, the more competitive game is still running (nearly a decade after Black Friday), and while the percentage isn’t as high, the majority of players still play online poker in a state that doesn’t offer legal online poker.

Nobody’s Right, If Everybody’s Wrong

The reason I bring up these games is to demonstrate how the same policy can impact two different subsets of players differently.

My own experience with casual poker players indicates that prohibition can have the desired effect, but it does little to curb the appetite of a serious player.

So, when it comes to responsible gaming and problem gambling, we shouldn’t look at policies as blanket solutions. Rather, we need to ask, what exactly is the policy trying to accomplish and where might it have an impact?

Is it:

  • Meant to help current disordered gamblers?
  • An attempt to decrease risk among current gamblers?
  • Trying to change the way future generations interact with gambling?
  • An information-gathering exercise designed to better understand the topic?

More importantly, is it a short-term or long-term solution?

Lessons from Big Tobacco

An example of a policy that was hotly debated was increasing taxes (and, by extension, the price) on cigarettes. The argument for it said the greater financial sting will deter people from buying cigarettes. The argument against it was that it would simply cost addicted smokers more money.

And not surprisingly, the results have been mixed and vary among different types of smokers. Several years after the policy was enacted, it’s possible to argue that it worked or didn’t work, depending on your purview.

The higher price may not have had much of an impact on chain-smokers, but it appears to have decreased the number of smokers in subsequent generations (further reading here). Addicted smokers are paying more, but some people prone to start smoking in the past see the price as a barrier to entry. The price hike worked as a longer-term solution.

Of course, the price hike didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were also anti-smoking campaigns, new warning labels, stricter ID policies, and new research. Again, it’s nuanced.

So yes, while current at-risk and problem gamblers will likely look for alternatives if the £2 limit is enacted, that doesn’t mean it’s an ineffectual long-term policy. It could very well change the betting habits of future generations.

Are there other policies that should be considered instead of or along with a betting limit? Perhaps (I certainly think so), and that’s a debate that should take place. But the framing of some ideas as ineffectual or counterproductive doesn’t hold water.  It’s more nuanced than that and depends on how you look at the success of a policy.

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