Bookies’ last roll of the dice before waving the white flag is to roll out their ‘white coats’

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The Campaign for Fairer Gambling poses questions about the academic research into problem gambling and links to the gambling sector itself.

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The infiltration of science by the tobacco industry led to what became known as the “Whitecoat Project”. Led by Philip Morris, the objective was to create and maintain a controversy about the health effects of tobacco. The activities of the scientists recruited by the tobacco industry were carefully controlled and their results filtered.

With such an industry-friendly system for commissioning gambling research, it’s no surprise that a former Chief Executive of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) was previously a tobacco lobbyist. The current structure allows bookmakers and gambling operators to contribute voluntarily to GambleAware, formerly the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), for research, education and treatment. Last year they raised a paltry £8m, a drop in the ocean compared to the £14 billion of gambler losses in Britain.

But the voluntary system means that with the cash they raise from the industry, it is clear from the Campaign’s perspective that the bookies have been able to influence the research agenda. When research was commissioned into Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in 2013, the Chair of the RGT was also Chair of the ABB. The government had said it would rely on this research to inform policy, but it was a whitewash. Instead of determining whether the £100 stake, the roulette content, the speed of play and the accessibility of FOBTs were contributing factors to the harm associated with them, the research sought to “distinguish between harmful and non-harmful patterns of play” from the data.

The RGT employed Dr Jonathan Parke as director of commissioning, who enlisted FeatureSpace, a private company, to analyse data from FOBTs. After two years of work, the predictive algorithm FeatureSpace produced was virtually no better than random and despite avoiding the impact of the stake in developing their predictive algorithm, they published a press release when the research was published claiming a “£2 stake is not the silver bullet”. Of course, FeatureSpace had a commercial incentive to maintain the status quo of £100 a spin, as they wanted to flog their algorithm to operators.

The Campaign pushed for the use of a real FOBT in observational research on the impact of the stake, which could inform a policy of stake reduction to prevent harm rather than merely detect it. The RGT finally relented: there would be research on the stake – but it would be carried out by Dr Adrian Parke, the brother of Dr Jonathan Parke, the RGT’s director of commissioning. It didn’t use a real machine, but a video simulation of roulette. The study used a sample of only around 30 participants, but it did conclude that higher stakes impact decision-making ability – only for researchers to state that the experiment needed to be replicated in a live setting with a real FOBT.

Dr Parke resigned from his post following the publication of the FOBT research, and his partner Jane Rigbye took over. No one else was interviewed for the position. Ms Rigbye and both Parke brothers were PhD students of Dr Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University. Dr Griffiths has produced whitewash evaluations of bookies’ player protection measures.

Dr Jonathan Parke appeared in the Observer at the weekend talking about the dangers of B3 machines, which are already capped at £2 a spin. While Dr Parke admitted FOBTs are one of the highest risk gambling activities, he also argued: “A stake-only approach ignores the role of game speed, game volatility and return-to-player [pay-out].” Return to player cannot be modified on £100 a spin FOBT content, as they offer casino games with a fixed house edge. The logical conclusion of his argument is to increase both the time between spins on B3 content and the return to player. Will Dr Parke publicly acknowledge this?

Another “white coat” sticking his head above the parapet is Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, but not too high as he pulled out of a radio debate with Matt Zarb-Cousin at the weekend. The presenter still put it to Matt that “government adviser” Professor Williams said there was no link between FOBTs and problem gambling. Matt clarified that 43% of FOBT users are problem or at risk gamblers, who lose more on FOBTs than several leading gambling activities combined. Perhaps Professor Williams forgot this when he became a consultant to the betting industry.

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