Gambling on Social Responsibility
by Marc W. Etches

Gambling on Social Responsibility

Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the minister responsible for gambling at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has made the Government’s position clear when it comes to the modernisation of the UK’s outdated gambling legislation.

He admonishes the populist press interpretation of the Government’s proposals as ‘deregulation’ and points out the intention to introduce “a series of vital new safeguards”.

Specifically, he says “Decisions about who will be allowed to provide commercial gambling will turn on the ability to demonstrate high standards of social responsibility.” A dimension that the Government claims is lacking under current legislation.

His boss, Tessa Jowell, has gone further by challenging casino operators in the UK to train front line staff to tackle problem gamblers just as publicans are legally obliged not to serve alcohol to those that are drunk. The analogy is tenuous and controversial, but is it possible?

In December 2003, the American Gaming Association issued a ‘code of conduct’ for members that requires casinos to make “reasonable efforts” to exclude gamblers at their request, so called voluntary exclusions.

However, most operators around the world are wary of asking staff to intervene directly. Whilst many, including in the UK, display help line numbers few expect their staff to actively take steps to dissuade a problem gambler from continuing to patronise their casino.

The Canadian province of Manitoba offers evidence that casinos can do more to help problem gamblers and, so the thesis goes, sustain profits.

Manitobans are rightly proud of their pioneering reputation; anyone who lives in a climate that ranges from –50c to +40c should be. In 1989 Canada’s first year around casino opened in the provincial capital, Winnipeg and last week I took a close look at a jurisdiction that is passionate about its commitment to its responsible gaming policy. Not so much a policy, more a way of life.

Manitoba Lotteries Corporation (MLC) is the state run organisation responsible for the operation of all gambling activity within Manitoba including the two casinos located in Winnipeg. Each casino houses over 600 high payout slots, table games and bingo.

Late in 2001, MLC launched its innovative Responsible Gaming Policy, which acknowledges the consequences of problem gambling and proactively seeks to educate its staff and customers and reduce the harm that can be felt within the local community.

A three level staff training program is a core component and focuses on what behaviours staff should look for and what they should do with their observations and concerns in different situations.

Level 1 training is provided to all front line staff at induction who are asked to watch for ‘red flag’ behaviours that may indicate problem gambling such as crying or borrowing money, passing on their observations to their supervisor.

They may also direct guests to the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM) help line or to a Level 2 supervisor if the customer wishes to sign up to the self-exclusion program.

At Level 2, staff are trained to respond to ‘red flag’ behaviours with caution and sensitivity, understanding that such behaviour may not be due to problem gambling. Specifically, they are comfortable with talking to guests about how gambling works - it should be regarded as entertainment that has a cost to participate and over time, you lose!

The casino shift managers are Level 3 trained and will respond to more serious circumstances such as threatened suicides but no one is expected to substitute for a professional counsellor.

The emphasis is on picking the right moment and the appropriate language and tone when talking with guests. The training manual emphasises a customer service approach is usually the most helpful.

Since December 2003, one of the casinos, McPhillips Street Station, has invited the AFM to locate a counsellor on the casino floor on a full time basis (in the offices of the casino shift manager no less!). This is regarded as a positive step particularly by the casino staff who clearly feel a great sense of responsibility for those that they see getting into trouble; having that person establish contact with a counsellor on their shift is motivational.

While I was in town, the AFM was hosting an ‘open house’ at McPhillips including a computer mock-up of a slot machine revealing the ‘technical secrets’ of how the casino, over time, gets to keep your money.

Initially, this struck me as analogous to the food industry placing a booth in a supermarket dedicated to telling customers how unhealthy the ingredients of certain products are and then asking them to purchase those products.

Over the course of the week I came to appreciate what the casino is trying to do is to educate its customers not to alienate them. Sure, the cynic might suggest ‘lip service’ but relying on those few who have problems controlling their gambling is not sustainable; they eventually run out of money.

The overt nature of the partnership with the AFM is regarded as a positive, although some casino guests are clearly surprised at the presence of the AFM booth and surreptitiously ask if the casino management know that they are there.

Problem gamblers will often see the slot attendant as the shaman of the casino and seek out their advice as to which slot machine is ‘hot’ and ‘loose’ tonight. The information at the booth is shared with all casino staff.

Not only is the training program helping the problem gambler but it has also exploded the myth that all the casino’s customers are problem gamblers.

In Manitoba, 85% of the 800k adults gamble, 75% safely and yet only 24% visit a casino. Marketing to a sustainable audience makes sense. The casino participation rate for the UK is less than 4%.

MLC, the AFM and the provincial regulator work in close partnership. Suppliers have a role too. International Game Technology (IGT) recently won a $75m contract to replace a large number of the 5000 video lottery terminals (slot machines) located in 580 bars and pubs throughout Manitoba.

MLC awarded the contract on the basis that IGT stump up $500k over five years to support the responsible gaming program – less than 1% of the contract price but MLC believes the message it sends has far greater value.

Importantly, the machines themselves will be sending out key messages to players by way of a number of new features including clocks, play timers, on screen information about gambling within limits and help line numbers printed on tickets dispensed automatically.

MLC has annual net income of $265m, $73m derived from the casinos. The financial commitment to its responsible gaming policy in 2003 was $2.1m and this year’s budget has grown to $2.8m. By 2008 the MLC expect this to rise to 2% of annual net income ($6m).

In contrast, the UK gambling industry is struggling to meet the Government’s challenge of a minimum of £3m annual contribution to research into and support of problem gambling. The industry has revenues of £7b.

The casinos in Manitoba are state run. There are those that would say that the private sector’s focus on profit inevitably undermines its collective sense of corporate social responsibility. Whatever the current perception, the UK Government expects those who would profit from modernisation to operate responsibly.

Marc W. Etches

14th June 2004

Date Posted: 15-Jun-2004

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