Gambling Commission annual report on gambling participation in the UK

United Kingdom

Last week, the Gambling Commission published its 2018 edition of Gambling Participation: Behaviour, Awareness and Attitudes. This report collates data gathered by an independent organisation through telephone and online surveys conducted with people aged 16 + to present annual estimates of gambling behaviour in the UK.

2018 was a tough year for gambling operators due to increased attention from both regulators and the national media in the face of problem gambling. The fixed-odds betting terminal ("FOBT") issue dominated headlines at the start of the year, with legislation introduced in May 2018 to reduce the maximum stake to £2 (to come into effect in April this year). The focus on the industry during the FOBT issue also led to increased calls to limit gambling advertising, especially advertising that may expose youths to gambling. This led to the UK's biggest gambling companies agreeing to a "whistle-to-whistle" television sports advertising ban and the Advertising Standards Authority recently introducing new standards to protect children and young people from irresponsible gambling ads.  

Despite the strong political rhetoric used in relation to gambling, the Gambling Commission's report found that gambling participation had actually remained stable in 2018 compared to 2017. There was a slight increase in gambling overall, with a decline in land-based gambling slightly offset by online gambling growth. Online gambling behaviour seems to be in line with general consumer technological habits, as gambling through mobile phones increased by 5% in 2018 compared to 2017 whilst there were reductions in gambling through laptops, tablets and PCs.

The growth in online gambling will strengthen calls for further regulation of such products. Indeed, in the same week as the publication of the Gambling Commission report, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson called for an update to "analogue legislation not fit for the digital age". Watson highlighted what he perceives as a discrepancy in regulation for online and offline-gambling operators, especially around caps on stakes. Indeed, there is no classification in law for the various types of online slots games that, according to Regulus Partners, generate a little over £2bn a year. Watson also called for monitoring of online games related gambling such as skins gambling.

The consumer analysis section of the report highlights areas in which operators could improve. For example, 53% of gamblers were not aware of self-exclusion yet 59% had received or seen gambling information from operators. After the FOBT issue, gambling advertising dominated headlines and the report highlights a significant increase in seeing or hearing gambling adverts for non-gamblers across all media types with the exception of radio. However, whether this was organic growth or partly due to the extensive media coverage the issue received is unclear. It will be interesting to see how the "whistle-to-whistle" ban affects the percentage of online gamblers placing in-play bets (23%).

In general, given the negative media coverage in 2018, the industry may be happy with a fall of only 3% in public trust. However, 2019 promises to introduce further pressures for the gambling industry. Operators, therefore, may welcome Watson's call for a "collaborative" effort to minimise any negative effects.