Responsible Gambling: Are We Finally Heading in the Right Direction? With Maurizio Savino, CEO of Gambless

The continual battle against problem gambling is an issue that the industry has always struggled with, but according to recent comments by key stakeholders such as the Gambling Commission and GambleAware, we may finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Maurizio Savino, CEO of Gambless also believes progress is being made, but there is still much to do. We caught up with him to find out his perspective on the future of industry responsible gambling strategies and why mental health should be the core focus to truly give players the support they need going forward.

Recent comments from the Gambling Commission and GambleAware suggest that gambling addiction levels are shrinking. Does this mean that the industry is finally heading in the right direction and what can the key industry stakeholders do to ensure this progress is sustained?

“It’s undeniable that the gambling industry has changed dramatically in the past decade or so. The landscape was a lot wilder and “greyer” 8-10 years ago, while now operators are embracing more responsibilities.

“Even compared to 3-4 years ago, things are better today. From a customer point of view, personally, it was a bit of a relief when the gambling ad ban was introduced in Italy. The amount of gambling adverts was getting out of control especially during sports events, so in that context, it was a good thing. I think the “whistle to whistle” initiative in the UK had sort of the same rationale. But I don’t necessarily believe that a total ban is desirable either.

“So yes, the industry is heading in the right direction. Yet there is still a lot to be done, for example, to increase awareness on gambling risks, to protect the youngers, and about the management of high spending players.

“With regards to recent comments, I think that probably those statements carry more political weight, given the ongoing review. Sure, they might appease the industry and try to influence the narrative, but I would be more cautious. We are still not sure what the aftermath of the pandemic will be in terms of gambling addiction, and let’s not forget that GamStop has reported an all-time high number of self-exclusions in the past few months.”

The UK Gambling Act review is well underway with results expected to be published in October. Do you expect to see recommendations in the Commission’s report for more industry investment into Research, Prevention and Treatment? How will this impact the future of the iGaming sector?

“I have recently read that license fee are going up by 65% in the UK, so I am assuming that in the long term this will bring a further consolidation of the industry, with fewer operators, making it easier to monitor.

“I can’t speculate on what the UK Gambling Act Review recommendations will be, but I can offer my opinion. I think that Prevention and Treatment should definitely be more funded. Research, on the other hand, sometimes can be a double-edged sword. Obviously, I think that research is important, but if the argument is for evidence-based reforms, then it should be done with a clear end goal. Otherwise, the risk is that it becomes an excuse to delay action.

“RET aside, what I do hope will be part of the recommendations is the institution of a relief fund for problem gamblers, to give at least a glimmer of hope to those in the most desperate situations. Studies show that people with a gambling problem are 15 times more likely to take their own life, and this is frankly disturbing data. One lost life is way too many and if I was a regulator, this would be at the top of my agenda.”

How big of a role does mental health play in problem gambling? Is the industry paying enough attention to these issues and what solutions are available for those who want to make this more of a focal point in their responsible gaming strategies?

“We really can’t talk about gambling addiction without talking about mental health, for two simple reasons. Firstly, gambling addiction is in fact a mental disorder, included in the DSM-5 alongside other addictive disorders. Secondly, there is evidence that the comorbidity rate with other mental disorders among problem gamblers may be as high as 90%. That means that if we want to rehabilitate vulnerable individuals, we need to consider their mental health as a whole.

“I think the industry is not paying enough attention to this yet, and often conversations about problem gambling are a bit of a broken record. I think perhaps we should stop talking about responsible gambling versus gambling addiction and start talking about gambling harm and mental health. The conversation would no longer be confined to only 2 or 3% of the population, but it would be of interest to many more people.

“Regarding gambling harm, we can use financial institutions for comparison. On my trading account I can buy stocks, but I cannot buy derivative products unless I’m a professional investor (at least my Italian bank won’t allow me). But with gambling, I can be a £5 punter on Sunday Premier League games, and then suddenly start betting £100 on greyhound races in New Zealand. At 4 am, and no one would stop me.

“Regarding mental health, talking about it also offers a paradigm shift. Addiction is no longer considered a moral failure but an illness, a condition worthy of treatment, and this reduces the stigma surrounding it. Gambling Treatment Diversion Courts, first introduced by Judge Cheryl Moss in Nevada, are a fine example of what such a paradigm shift can bring.”

It’s been 9 months since the Gambless App initial launch. What have been your key industry takeaways so far?

“Yes, it’s been now about 9 months since Gambless initial launch. The app was created by our team of psychologists with the aim to prevent and support problem gamblers, using a holistic approach on mental health. Feedbacks from users have been great so far and the app is currently ranking #1 for many ‘gambling addiction’ related terms in the app stores, at least in the UK, USA, Italy, and Australia.

“That means that we are capturing most of the organic demand for such services coming directly from players. And we are learning a lot from our users. As soon as they register on the app, we invite them to take some self-assessment tests to evaluate their condition and, if deemed at risk of problem gambling, to provide them free resources. These tests include a classic PGSI test, a risk factors test and a “Gambling IQ” test, but we also survey them about the type of gambling activity and at which operators they gamble the most.

“These surveys are completely anonymous, and thus far we have been able to spot some repeating patterns not only at a micro/behavioural level but also at a macro level, based on geographical location.

“We want to collect and analyse a bit more data and hopefully by early fall, when Gambless will celebrate 1 year, we will be able to share some interesting insights.”

What does the future hold for Gambless? How will your long-term vision contribute to the sustained growth of the iGaming market?  

“As mentioned, we are currently offering free access to our resources, and we are committed to doing so throughout 2021. Our goal is to never ask a penny of problem gamblers, but obviously, this business model is not sustainable. At some point, we’ll have to stop and draw some conclusions. We’ll need to understand whether the industry is receptive and supportive of our solutions, or if we are better off halting our investment and sideline the project.

“I must admit that so far, the response from operators and regulators has been disheartening. However, I try to keep a positive outlook, motivated by the fact that our work is having a huge impact on a lot of people.

“Gambless is part of a bigger project, that revolves around mental health. As matter of fact, we developed also another app called Mindspa, available in 5 languages, which counts over 350,000 registered users. We are fully bootstrapped and achieved great milestones in the past 12 months, so in the next few weeks, we aim to start a round of funding, putting some equity on the market. We want to accelerate our growth and explore new opportunities, such as workplace mental health and personal self-care.”

Editor’s Note: From speaking with Maurizio it’s abundantly clear that we can’t tackle the responsible gambling issue without first addressing the issue of mental health. These two factors go hand in hand and although the industry is clearly heading in the right direction, operators need to fully embrace the idea of mental health and its influence on player behaviour before the perfect solution is realised.

Unfortunately, it seems many operators are still not seeing the value potential in tackling mental health head-on via apps such as Gambless. But with more research and case studies being done every day, we’re hopeful that this will change in the future.

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