In April this year I joined a group of more than 50 experts and practitioners from around the world in Toronto, Canada, for the eleventh International Think Tank on Gambling Research, Policy and Practice.
Apart from enjoying unpredictable weather, great food and Niagara Peninsula wines, we discussed significant issues and developments in gambling policy, services and research. The focus was on how we can work together to promote greater understanding of gambling in the context of public health and social and economic development.
The think tank brings together everyone with a stake, and a role to play, in addressing the issue of gambling harm: from research, treatment, public health, government, regulation and industry.
The group discussed new themes, including adolescents and online gaming, specific groups at risk of gambling harm (for example, older women), and moving research into action on gambling harm.
Contributing significantly to the wealth of new information at the event was the release of five major longitudinal studies, including the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation's Victorian Gambling Study.
Having worked on the Victorian Gambling Study, it was fabulous to be able to meet with the researchers working on the only other general population longitudinal studies and compare notes. We emerged refreshed, with a mass of ideas, and keen to get working.
Adolescents and online gaming
You can read an interview with Jeffrey Derevensky in this edition of Inside gambling.
The overwhelming consensus from forum participants was that addressing youth gambling from a public health perspective is either non-existent or in its early days.
From a community, media and government viewpoint, adolescent gambling isn't a key issue – alcohol and methamphetamine use are regarded as much bigger problems.
With social media a part of everyday life, the group discussed using mitigation rather than avoidance to tackle youth gambling. They largely agreed that approaching gambling harm among youth in a similar way to obesity or eating disorders may be more effective than approaching it as an addiction in the long term.
Internationally, the line between gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred, and industry is capitalising on this. The community is less vigilant to potential harm when gambling is seen purely as entertainment. The forum agreed that much more research is needed to investigate the links between gaming and gambling.
The line between gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred, and industry is capitalising on this.
Educating young people on the risks and getting their input in prevention programs, including using the same tools as industry, like social media and games, is a positive step forward.
Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has developed a free online game called Soul Crush Story that demonstrates how games can manipulate behaviour.
Specific groups at risk of gambling harm
The presenters argued that specific communities often lose out when it comes to prevention and help programs. When funding is tight, the most cost-effective solution usually wins, which is often a generic or 'one size fits all' solution. In public health terms, however, the ideal is to have both targeted and population-wide solutions.
This includes separate programs for men and women, who are targeted differently by industry, and who may develop and express gambling problems differently.
When developing programs for specific groups, those groups should be involved in defining the problems and the solutions. For example, programs for indigenous communities should be approached as a partnership with those communities.
Men and women are targeted differently by industry and may develop and express gambling problems differently.
Moving research into action
On the second day of the conference, professionals working in treatment, regulation, industry and policy discussed how they use research evidence to reduce harm from gambling.
The group explored options for greater collaboration on data collection and sharing, discussed gaps in data on youth and specific communities at risk, and asked what can be learned from the way evidence has been used to address other public health issues, such as alcohol and tobacco.
With alcohol, the focus has moved from the individual to addressing issues and harms at a wider community level. With tobacco, regulation of advertising and how the product is presented to the public has made an enormous impact on public health.
This was the first North American meeting of the think tank, which is an initiative of the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) University. This year it was co-hosted by Gambling Research Exchange Ontario.