An article in the British Medical Journal poses the question, “Why are we devising regulations that enable consumers to use dangerous products, rather than preventing their release onto the market?”
One answer is to do with who has power to shape the narratives and discourses around harmful gambling.
Generally it is the case that the gambling industry, regulators and most political policy revolves around focus upon individual gamblers. If they encounter harm that is seen as an individual matter. The industry repeatedly draws attention to what it implies is a tiny number of unfortunates who suffer harm. From here, the industry embraces the ‘cure’ as being education, education, education. The industry makes a small voluntary donation to gambling education charities. small in relation to profits, and small in relation to the massive sums spent on advertising.
Nobody can argue against the need for education. One can, though, query its predominance in discussions about reducing gambling harms. Rather than the dominant narrative’s focus on individuals, those unlucky few, we should work to emphasise the greater importance of commercial, regulatory and political factors. Campaigners do this, public health initiatives do this, many city councils do this, individual politicians do this, increasingly institutional professional bodies such as doctors do this, hundreds of third sector organisations do this. Yet even combined, all this work to shift emphasis to the commercial determinants of health and wellbeing fails sufficiently to challenge the idea that all is generally well and sincere attention is being given to the smalll number of people who are harmed by their own behaviour.
Permeating the agencies of the dominant narrative is a neoliberal ideology which favours a laissez-faire capitalism unhindred by regulations. Closely connected with this is the promotion of extreme forms of libertarianism, found especially in the conservative right wing, which adopts a moral stance based on a right to ‘personal freedom’ and ‘personal responsibility’. All adults, those over the age of 18, it is argued, are the ultimate agents of personal choice. Any interference with this individual freedom – for instance by the ‘Nanny State’ – is seen as a gross curtailment of personal freedom. From this it follows that if we gamble ‘sensibly’ all will be well; if we gamble ‘foolishly’ – well who is to blame but ourselves?
It is not possible to argue against such core beliefs but it is worth emphasising that from them will emerge preferred narratives, evidence seeking agenda and interpretation of evidence.
Opposing such core beliefs and generally cohering around views which see individuals not as separate autonomous atoms but rather as – all of us – deeply implicated in the social, cultural, economic and commercial environments which run through us and largely make us, will continue to challenge the dominant narratives and amass evidence from a wide spectrum of sources, from the voices of lived experience to the refined specialisms of medicine and the sciences.
There is, however, the insidious danger here of too coarse an understanding of environmental factors leading to dehumanisation and annihilation of personal agency. If individuals become empty data in conceptual boxes of ‘deprivation’, ‘disadvantage’, ‘vulnerable’ and so on, we lose sight of the fact that – with very few specific exceptions – individuals in whatever circumstances do have moral agency, do have degrees of power to contribute to and love others, are able to overcome their own and others’ difficulties, and can recover from things like addiction largely based upon this agency. Support – be it from family, friends, community, professionals, charities, recovery movements – is not a ‘magic wand’. Support works with individual agency, not instead of it. It is worth observing here that all difficulties in life are largely overcome by such interaction. The idea of an individual as a totally separate atom of being, alone responsible for their own welfare and that of those around, is absurd.
In recovery movements generally – especially in the fields of addiction and mental health – it has always been the grassroots support movements that have been by far the most important factor of recovery. At the same time, it has been individuals – each with personal agency – who have been the biggest force for bringing about policy changes at higher, institutional levels. Lived experience of real individual people – not empty bits of data – will continue to lead in challenging dominant narratives and shaping new ones based upon justice, human rights and equality.
Campaigning and voices against the dominant narratives and dominant agenda-setting want to shift from virtually total attention on individual (as problem, pathological, abnormal) towards urgent attention to commercial strategies such as saturation advertising, sports sponsorship, micro-marketing aimed not only at identified heavy gamblers but also at those in recovery, and – barely mentioned in much discussion – the design of gambling products deliberately designed to be addicitve.
While the gambling industry is free to fund education programmes, monolithic, conveyor belt support charities, the status quo will be maintained. That is why the call for a 1% levy on industry profits is so vital. For not only will it provide more money it will also provide for continuity of funding, fund genuinely independent research and treatment, and contribute significantly to a clearer overview no longer saturated by ideology which more validly represents the gambling landscape, and dismantles a narrative which serves vested interests and enables their manufacture of harms.