As we begin Responsible Gaming Education Month, the gambling industry and related stakeholders, including academics, policy makers, regulators and advocates, must face a difficult reality.
Some of the research that is used to justify policies and programs across the United States and around the world is woefully inadequate to effectively do the job.
As Chair Emeritus of the International Center for Responsible Gaming (ICRG), I have been privileged to work with many colleagues in raising millions of dollars to fund dozens of studies around the world.
These have been undertaken by outstanding researchers on critical topics, including gaining insight into the scope of gambling harm, how the disorder progresses, how the brain processes gambling and how the brain changes from a healthy state to one that is disordered.
The ICRG establishes very strict guidelines on the researchers and will, when the occasion warrants, deny funding to studies that don’t meet those criteria.
However, a concern of mine for many years has been the fact that there are any number of academic and commercial studies around the world that use small numbers of subjects such that no one can derive any meaningful benefit from the results. This, of course, doesn’t stop stakeholders from using those results to try to influence policy.
Unlike alcohol and drug research, which is often based on tens of thousands of subjects or more, gambling rarely features more than a couple of hundred subjects and, too often, far less than that.
In addition, the research continues to be hampered by a lack of consistency in the definition of critical terms. Among these: what constitutes harm? What does the term “problem gambling” encompass? Does problem gambling include gambling disorder or does it mean to only convey a sub-clinical form of “problem?”
Research from around the world jumbles these and many other terms together, and often by authors who have different definitions for the same terms.
Then there are the more technical aspects, which are highly impactful on results. Most gambling research is done using screens. The most popular of these, including the Problem Gambling Severity Index and the South Oaks Gambling Screen, ask a series of questions of respondents, in order to determine the relative impact of gambling on their lives.
The concern is that different researchers use different “cut points“ on these surveys. If the subject endorses four out of nine, does that mean that they have a gambling problem or gambling disorder? If they answer three of nine, what is the proper conclusion we might derive? What distinction can be drawn if the subject is answering “yes” for behavior in the past year versus some long-ago time in their lives?
Finally, we must remember that all research is not the same. Some research, as noted earlier, can be restricted to very strict academic standards while others may be more loosely constructed. This is not to suggest that commercial or government research should be ignored. On the contrary, insights can come from any number of sources, but we have a responsibility to inform the public of how results or conclusions were derived.
The consequences of these issues were laid bare in a recent open letter penned by Andrew Rhodes the CEO of the United Kingdom Gambling Commission. In it, Mr. Rhodes brings to light several important points including, specifically, the misuse of statistics in arguing for or against policies and regulations related to gambling.
It should be noted that he isn’t taking sides on this at all. He is just as critical of people who might appear to be anti-gambling, as he is of people who are gambling advocates.
The unfortunate reality is that the statistics upon which anyone is welcome to derive their opinion are themselves not always of great quality.
To be clear, we’ve come a long way in terms of gambling research. The quality of the researchers has never been higher. The scope and breadth of the work has grown, as has the international footprint of the studies. And the industry is setting records for donations to high-quality research.
There are four specific matters that deserve attention:
- There needs to be some form of consensus on terms, their definition and proper use. Among these are:
- Problem Gambling
- Responsible Gambling
- Gaming or Gambling?
- There should be an agreed-upon minimum standard on the number of subjects necessary to derive “meaningful results” among any given population.
- Stakeholders on all sides (including the media) should cite the number of test subjects before expressing any conclusions as to the results of any given study, i.e., “In a study of (14) subjects, the authors found….”
- The type of research should be clearly identified: academic, commercial or government.
- Policy makers must test their programs and policies to ensure efficacy. If programs don’t work, move on. There’s no shame in this; it’s the right thing to do.
These are just 5 ideas of which I am certain any number of people smarter than me can refine and improve upon.
But to do so, we must start to have a serious conversation about this if we are to make meaningful impacts on harm reduction and customer care.