2.1 What are gambling harms?
Gambling harms are “the adverse impacts from gambling on the health and wellbeing of individuals, families, communities, and society.”1
These harms affect people’s resources, relationships, and health. For example:
Gambling harm can affect employment and finances, and may involve engagement in antisocial behaviours and criminal activities.
Relationships with close family and friends may be affected, as well as with the wider community, for example through family breakdown and homelessness.
Both mental and physical health may be impacted, and disordered gambling may lead to substance use and suicidal thoughts.
In Scotland, it is estimated that more than 200,000 people are at risk of, or currently experiencing, harm related to their own gambling.2
A Peers for Gambling Reform report estimates that gambling-related harm costs the UK Government up to £1.17 billion per year, mostly through strain on the NHS.3
Figure 5 is a detailed framework of gambling harms from the Gambling Commission’s ‘Measuring Gambling Related Harms.’4 It provides a detailed framework to understand the kinds of gambling harms people experience, and how we might measure them.
Work and employment
- Unstable employment
- Job loss
- Reduced performance
Money and debt
- Financial insecurity
- Reduced disposable income
- Anti-social behaviour
- Crimes committed
Key metrics include:
- Increased benefits claims
- Reduced efficiency / lost productivity (absenteeism)
- Disciplinary issues
- University / school dropout
- Reduced academic performance
- Job loss
- Unable to gain employment
- Missed opportunities / progression at work / education
- Increased use of debt services
- Use of credit cards / unsecured forms of loans / access to money
- Reduced financial credit scores
- Increased financial exclusion (no access to credit etc)
- Use of food banks
- Bankruptcy and other related financial difficulties
- Experience of homelessness / housing insecurity
- Rent / Mortgage / bill arrears
- Use of housing and related services
- Crimes committed (theft, fraud, assault, etc)
- Increased reoffending
- Petty crime and criminality (not convictions)
- Police callouts / investigations
Figure 5: A framework of gambling harms
In a clinical context, people who experience significant harm or loss of control as a result of their gambling may be diagnosed as experiencing a gambling disorder:
Gambling disorder is defined by the World Health Organisation as a pattern of gambling behaviour that causes “significant distress or impairment” to important personal functions.5 This could include disruption or damage to personal, family or recreational pursuits. People with a gambling disorder also experience impaired control over gambling.
Myths about gambling harms
Several common myths about gambling harms have been disproven by research:
‘My gambling only affects me’
Gambling harm does not just affect people who gamble. One person’s gambling can have a negative impact on friends, families, communities, and the society they live in.
Affected others are people who experience harm as a result of the gambling of someone close to them. It is estimated that for each person experiencing harmful gambling, six other people close to them are affected.6
‘What’s the worst that could happen? I lose some money’
Gambling harms can affect a person’s finances, but they can also affect a range of other areas of their lives and the lives of others. For example, a person who experiences harm from their own gambling may face:7
- Harm to their health through increased stress, poor sleep, feelings of shame, substance use, self-harming, poor diet, or poorer overall wellbeing
- Harm to their relationships through loss of trust, increased arguments, isolation, participating in fewer social activities, or relationship breakdown
Recent research has found that people who gamble even small sums are also more likely to die earlier than those who do not gamble – and the more someone spends on gambling, the higher the risk of dying earlier.8
‘Only people who are addicted to gambling experience harm’
All gambling involves the risk of harm. People experiencing disordered gambling do often experience severe harms as a result of their own gambling.
However, even gambling small sums of money increases your risk of a range of negative financial, social and health outcomes. Recent research using data from 6.5 million UK Lloyds Bank customers found that even people who spend small amounts on gambling are more likely to experience:9
- Financial hardship (miss a mortgage payment, miss a credit card payment, take out a payday loan, be pursued by debt collectors, use unplanned overdraft)
- Physical disability
- Dying earlier
‘I never see people experiencing gambling harm - it's not an issue in my community’
Gambling is a hidden addiction – even someone experiencing severe harms may be able to hide this from those close to them.
Someone experiencing harmful alcohol or drug use may show signs like slurred speech or dilated pupils, and will need to dispose of bottles or drug-related paraphernalia. With the 24/7 availability of gambling, people are able to gamble anywhere, any time using their mobile phone and they may not show any obvious signs of distress.
Similarly, the stigma of being labelled a ‘problem gambler’ can make people hide their experience, and avoid seeking help. This stigma may come from:
- Stereotypes society holds about people who experience gambling harm
- Our society’s policies on gambling compared to other harmful products
- A person’s own beliefs and prejudices about ‘gamblers’
How gambling harms affect young people
Children and young adults are more likely to experience harm as a result of their own gambling than older adults.
Similarly, Figure 6 is from Scottish research with regular sports bettors – it shows that the rate of harmful gambling is highest in young adults (13.1% of 18-24 year olds), and decreases with age (1.2% of over 65s).
Figure 6: Rate of harmful gambling in regular sports bettors by age
In 2021, we conducted research with Scottish young people (11-26), in partnership with Young Scot and the ALLIANCE. A quarter of young people said they’d gambled in the last 12 months (24%). Among those who had gambled, a quarter said their gambling had impacted them in some way (25%).12
Young people experiencing disordered gambling are more likely to:13
Experience emotional distress and poor mental health
Feelings of shame or guilt about their gambling, as well as more general anxiety or depression, are more common in young people experiencing harmful gambling
Experience disruptions to their daily life
For example, young people may be late or absent from school or work as a result of losing sleep due to their gambling.
Experience problems with money
For example, young people may have less money for social activities or discretionary purchases due to their gambling.
Men aged 16-24 are 9 times more likely to attempt suicide if they are experiencing harmful gambling, and women are 5 times more likely.
Experience problems with relationships
For example, young people may experience increased conflict in their relationships, or spend less time with family or friends due to their gambling.
Experience poor academic performance
Use drugs and alcohol
Young people experiencing harmful gambling are more likely to use alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and/or other drugs.
Children and young people are also vulnerable to experiencing harm as a result of a parent or caregiver’s gambling. 2 million children in Great Britain are estimated to live in households with adults experiencing harmful gambling.14 Children of parents or caregivers who experienced gambling problems are more likely to:
- Experience poor mental health
For example, children of parents experiencing harmful gambling are more likely to report experiencing depression.15
- Experience family stress and instability
Children of parents experiencing harmful gambling are more likely to be exposed to family harms such as family conflict, poor communication, financial or emotional deprivation, and parental neglect.16
- Experience family violence
Adults experiencing harmful gambling are more likely to be perpetrators of family violence.17
- Experience harm from their own gambling later in life
People who report that their father experienced harmful gambling are 10.7 times more likely to develop harmful gambling themselves. People who report that their mother experienced harmful gambling are 10.6 times more likely to experience harm from their own gambling themselves.18
For a detailed discussion of the kinds of gambling harms children and young people experience, we recommend reading ‘Measuring gambling-related harms among children and young people’ by Blake et al.
Affected others are people who experience harm as a result of the gambling of someone close to them.
Surveys with family members of people experiencing harmful gambling indicate that the impact on affected others can be profound:20
reported their loved one’s gambling had harmed their health
E.g. loss of sleep due to stress or worry, depression, stress-related health problems, reduced physical activity, neglecting medical needs, increased alcohol and tobacco consumption, self-harming, attempting suicide.
For example, one intimate partner shares how higher stress levels due to her partner’s gambling resulted in losing sleep:
I feel so exhausted that I don’t take proper care of myself, so any time I have as down time I just want to sleep, I just want to eat, and I pick up junk food and things like that to eat. I don’t feel like exercising or taking care of myself. Those are a real push for me to do. I know that if I do them I feel better but it’s that kind of cycle of it.
reported their loved one’s gambling had impacted their financial security
E.g. less money available for spending or saving, losing a major asset such as a car, increased debt, needing help from welfare organisations, or becoming bankrupt
reported their loved one’s gambling had impacted their work or education
E.g. reduced performance at work or study due to distraction, missing work or study, lack of progression at work or study, losing their job
reported experiencing relationship harms
E.g. greater tension and conflict, feeling excluded, spending less time at social events, spending less time with loved ones, threatening to end the relationship with the person who gambles, ending the relationship
For example, one mother shares the shame her son has experienced as a result of his father’s gambling:
My son’s feelings towards him now have gone like out of the window. Ever since my son has stopped writing his surname now, that’s the impact it has had on him.
Almost all reported experiencing emotional and psychological harm
E.g. experiencing distress, anger, shame, hopelessness, insecurity or vulnerability
Most family members had attempted to access support in some form, although more than one third (38%) were not aware that support was available. The most common barriers to accessing support were:
- Embarrassment or shame about their loved one’s gambling (56%)
- Depression (56%)
- Anxiety (56%)
Although most research on affected others is conducted with adults, our 2022 report on young people (11-26) found that the gambling of loved ones is also a source of concern for a significant proportion of Scottish young people. Among young people who are close to someone who gambles regularly, a third (33%) reported worrying about that person’s gambling.21