Gambling across borders

A blog about the productive life of risk

Window dressing: The Senet Group and self-regulation

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The recently founded Senet Group has been formed by four of Britain’s largest gambling companies in response to ‘public concerns on gambling, and gambling advertising in particular’. The group promises that its members will ‘adhere to industry codes of practice, including that of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB)’ and from the 1 October 2014 will:

  • not advertise sign-up offers (free bets and free money) on TV before 9pm
  • not advertise gaming machines in betting shop windows
  • dedicate 20% of shop window advertising to responsible gambling messages

Self-regulation and the adoption of codes of conduct are two of the many well-established strategies to resist external regulation pioneered by the tobacco industry and perfected by the alcohol industry. The ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ published in hundreds of US newspapers in 1954 was signed by tobacco executives who went on to preside over a campaign of misinformation fronted by the Tobacco Institute. The youth smoking prevention campaign was particularly effective in staving off regulation, and protecting profits (Landman et al 2002). We know that self-regulation was used strategically and cynically because we have access to thousands of previously secret company documents from the time.Image by Sam Kelly. Dice from 'Roll Through the Ages' published by Gryphon Games

In alcohol, there is extensive documentation of the rhetorical value of self-regulation. A 2014 review of self-regulation marketing (advertising) codes by Babor and Noel found that ‘In countries where systematic procedures have been applied to the evaluation of marketing self-regulation codes, the research strongly indicates a lack of effectiveness in protecting vulnerable populations from objectionable content and exposure.’

Big Food is currently being criticised for failing to learn from these examples (Brownwell and Warner 2009). A 2014 review of self-regulation in the food and beverage industry by Ronit and Jensen found that, ‘commitments in industry self-regulation schemes tend to be relatively vague and permissive, that the measurable effects of the self-regulations tend to be relatively small and that some extent of public regulation may catalyse the effectiveness of industry self-regulation.’ A recent review of the drinks vending machine sector in primary schools in Madrid, for example, showed that compliance with voluntary codes was low and concluded that self-regulation was ineffective (Royo-Bordonada and Martínez-Huedo 2014).

Many will be aware that the gambling industry is exchanging ideas and personnel with tobacco and alcohol. The most recent and obvious examples include Dirk Vennix who came to the ABB from the Tobacco Manufacturer’s Association, and Clarion’s weird styling of the EiG (Excellence in iGaming) conference as some kind of existential, free thinking endeavour which includes Chris Searle former head of the Portman Group as a key speaker.

The Senet Group is inspired by the Portman Group. In 2004 the editors of Addiction described the Portman Group as having ‘consistently propagated interpretations of the research evidence that promote the commercial interests of the drinks industry while seeking to discredit research findings that would lead to effective policy measures supporting the interests of public health’ (Edwards et al 2004).

I agree with some of Steve Donoghue’s observations about the Senet group, but the weakness of his argument about researchers is that he has no knowledge of fields around gambling and of what constitutes good practice in those fields. He writes that:

Those in the academic community who are starving and can’t understand why the industry doesn’t fund them to fulfil their ideological fantasies are already producing methodologically weak arguments that all research commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust is completely tainted and purely industry propaganda.

I have never argued that all research commissioned by the RGT is industry propaganda. I have argued that the structural arrangement for funding research is not fit for purpose. Funding for research into areas of ‘dangerous consumption’ including alcohol and gambling should be independent of industry. Like the rhetorical use of self-regulation, this is not controversial in other fields. For example, the British Medical Journal will not accept papers that have received funding from tobacco:

As editors of the BMJ, Heart, Thorax, and BMJ Open we have decided that the journals will no longer consider for publication any study that is partly or wholly funded by the tobacco industry. Our new policy is consistent with those of other journals including PLoS Medicine, PLoS One, PLoS Biology; Journal of Health Psychology; journals published by the American Thoracic Society; and the BMJ’s own Tobacco Control

While Steve Donoghue and others think that gambling researchers are being fussy, or unrealistic, it is actually gambling industry executives, regulators and paid-for researchers in the field of gambling studies who are completely and utterly behind the times and out of touch with basic standards observed in other disciplines. For reasons that are poorly understood (and cannot be easily categorised) industry funding does affect research findings.

The Portman Group was founded in 1989. That the gambling industry could found a similar group in 2014 and expect to be taken seriously is indicative of the generally poor level of debate in the field. Among researchers there is a lack of reflexivity and failure to acknowledge conflicts of interest. There is no credibility or trust in gambling research where academics are available for hire, financial relationships are not acknowledged in publications or at conferences and safe research is rewarded with access and funding. The entire knowledge base has been weakened by the influence of industry. Critics like Jim Orford, Charles Livingstone and Peter Adams have been saying these things for years, but the system is very resilient, underpinned by rhetorical gestures like the founding of the Senet Group.

This is not 1989. There is greater public awareness of the politics of knowledge. People might once have accepted ideas like ‘Responsible Drinking’, which deemphasise the supply of alcohol and focus on the consumer, but my expectation is that they are less prepared to trust the intentions of an industry which has become more aggressive since the Gambling Act. The cynicism of the industry, in creating a body that pre-empts meaningful regulation with window dressing (literally) will be met with the scepticism of the public, who will see this exercise for what it really is.

Rebecca Cassidy

 

Bibliography

Edwards, G, R West, TF Babor, W Hall, J Marsden, 2004. An invitation to an alcohol industry lobby to help decide public funding of alcohol research and professional training: a decision that should be reversed, Addiction, Volume 99, Issue 10, pages 1235–1236.

Brownell KD, Warner KE. 2009. The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died. How similar is Big Food? Milbank Q. Mar;87(1):259-94.

Landman A, Ling PM, Glantz SA. 2002. Tobacco industry youth smoking prevention programs: protecting the industry and hurting tobacco control. Am J Public Health. 2002 Jun;92(6):917-30.

Royo-Bordonada, MA, MA Martínez-Huedo 2014. Gaceta Sanitaria, Volume 28, Issue 1, January–February 2014, Pages 65–68.

K Ronit and J D Jensen 2014. Obesity and industry self-regulation of food and beverage marketing: a literature review European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 68, 753-759 (July 2014)

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Written by samkelly2014

September 24, 2014 at 10:35 am

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