Rob Calder compares the UK Government’s 2023 gambling white paper with the 2021 drug strategy. Read on for a policy critique buried in a blog about rules, regulations, and reform.

The aversion to adding any friction to gambling seems to be equal and opposite to the reluctance to remove any friction for people who use drugs.

Crime and funishment

The government’s gambling white paper was published just 16 months after the drug strategy – close enough for me to be struck by their differences and similarities. But mostly their differences.

As far as the drug strategy was concerned, drugs are a blight; drugs cause crime. Whatever we do, we absolutely must stop people using drugs and committing crimes. The links to crime are permanent and irrefutable. And even those people who don’t commit crimes, well, they kind of do anyway, and we should stop them using drugs regardless.

By contrast, the gambling white paper seemed at pains to tell me that gambling is fine for most people. Totally. Fine. It conceded that gambling is obviously terrible for people for whom it is terrible, but aside from that, it is a lot of harmless fun for the great majority. The paper then tried to work out some detailed and interesting ways of supporting people who experience harm from gambling whilst not making it difficult for everyone else wanting to place a bet. Keeping it easy for people who find it, well, totally (TOTALLY) fine.

It’s tempting to attribute the differences between the white paper and the drug strategy to a cause of my choosing. Culture, lobbying, politics, stigma, money. I could take my pick and live off Twitter for a month. Instead, I’ve been trying to work out how I could justify being disappointed with both documents.

I was disappointed with the drug strategy for not acknowledging that some people use drugs in a way that is okay for them. I was then disappointed with the gambling white paper for arguing that most people gamble in a way that is okay for them. Have I become one of those people that is just disappointed in everything? Am I disappointed that I have become one of those people?

Friction and non-friction

Something clicked into place for me when I started thinking about the white paper’s obsession with barriers to gambling. About them being ‘frictionless’ for people who find gambling fun.

Frictionless. A term borrowed from interaction design to describe how one should be able to use online resources without difficulty, which in itself is a fantasy. I can’t remember the last online purchase that didn’t make me want to cancel the order, destroy my laptop, and go to a local shop to make a cash purchase of a pillow into which I could scream until it all went away.

Chapter one of the gambling white paper covers online protections for players and products, which is an important component of any contemporary gambling policy as mobile devices have made online gambling an activity people can engage in 24/7. The section on ‘Artificial barriers’ responds to concerns that increased protections will have a negative impact on consumer choice and consumer freedoms.

One of the subheadings in the white paper – ‘Artificial barriers to consumer choice’ – pretty neatly captures the priorities and challenges from the government’s perspective; the phrase does a lot of lifting that I as a commentator now don’t have to. Barriers are artificial, and they are barriers to consumer choice.

In pursuit of preserving consumer choice, the gambling white paper explores ways of adding friction for people who experience harms from gambling whilst adding precisely no friction for people who gamble ‘responsibly’ – regulations that work for the people who need them, but that don’t get in the way for people who don’t.

The aims were probably well-intentioned, but there was so much emphasis on having zero friction for people who gamble without harm as if this was an absolute line that mustn’t be crossed. I mean, would a small amount of friction really be such a terrible thing? Could those who can take or leave gambling be horribly upset if they had to go through an extra step every so often? Would it really be that bad?

Friction, friction everywhere

I don’t mind being age checked for alcohol, lottery tickets, or paracetamol (not that this ever happens to me now). Handing over your ID to get into nightclubs seems to be widely accepted. I have to authorise my work email using the authenticator app if I log on from a different computer (or because that’s what Microsoft has decided I’ll be doing on any given morning). There’s friction everywhere. Why such an aversion to having any friction in gambling?

By contrast, the law prohibiting drugs could be framed as a form of maximum friction. If a government wants to add as much friction as possible to an activity, the best way (after adding the ‘which squares have a bus in them’ game) is to make sale, purchase, possession, and use of something illegal. And to ask the police to enforce these rules.

The aversion to adding any friction to gambling seems to be equal and opposite to the reluctance to remove any friction for people who use drugs.

Skip to the end

That said, and despite writing a blog about it, it’s not a contrast I’m not going to spend too much time worrying about. My main interest is in helping those people who use drugs or who gamble and who want to stop.

And so, with the drug strategy, I welcomed the improvements to treatment, the investment, and the focus on building the workforce. Likewise, with the gambling white paper, I welcome the statutory levy (terms and conditions apply) and am interested in ways to support people who experience harm from gambling. It’s just that those elements are in documents, papers, and strategies that also contain a lot of noise. It all seems like a lot of unnecessary words that I must wade through to get to the actual policy, the commitments, the numbers, and the money. It all just slows down my access and adds friction.

I long for a world where policy documents get straight to the point in a way that eliminates friction for the reader. As long as it is done in a way that keeps safeguards for the small minority of people who struggle to regulate their policy reading. You know, when the fun stops…

by Rob Calder

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