I’m an advocate for the personal freedoms that allow me every opportunity to live life on my own terms, free from oppression. I’m also an advocate for laws that deter me from harming myself or others.
I doubt either of these views are rare or would place me in the minority. In fact, I imagine most everyone would agree with both statements.
Now comes the really difficult part. Trying to balance personal freedom v. protection. Because while we all agree on the macro level, things often become blurry when we start to discuss specifics. Drawing the line in the sand where personal freedom ends and protection begins is sure to spark debate.
This is the unenviable job of legislators as they attempt to strike a balance by creating laws that serve as a way to protect and educate the public, allow for personal freedom and do so in a way that supports funding to achieve both of these objectives as well as the financial needs of the state.
GAMBLING: A Unique & Complicated Product
The debate over personal freedom and protection is especially complicated with gambling and gambling regulation. I consider gambling to be one of the most unique products in the world and attempts to draw a line in the sand are further complicated by the endless variables that make each product and individual a bit different than the next.
For contrast, let’s first take a look at a similar product in which there is a concern for addiction and abuse.
COMPARED TO Alcohol
While individual tolerance varies and can be increased with increased time and consumption, the underlying biological reaction to alcohol is fairly similar across the board. A beer that is 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) will cause a similar effect on the individual based on their height and weight alone. These metrics can be listed in a chart and the impact can be fairly accurately predicted.
Armed with this knowledge, lawmakers can then discuss and come to a reasonable line in the sand of what they feel is best for the people they are charged with protecting. I’m not a historian on alcohol legislation, but I assume this information was used when deciding the ABV level that is legal for distribution as well as any restrictions placed on various beer, wine or liquor.
Furthermore, the average consumer can look at a product’s label and the listed ABV % to quickly determine the effect it will have on them. This knowledge empowers the consumer to make informed decisions.
For the most part, it seems like the line between personal freedom and protection has been fairly successful for both the sellers and consumers of alcohol.
WHAT MAKES GAMBLING SO COMPLICATED?
Unlike alcohol, there isn’t a clean and easy direct relationship between gambling and the individual. Yes, there are biological reactions to gambling but none of these provide the easy to understand and easy to implement chart that ABV provides for alcohol.
Wager Size & Personal Wealth
The most obvious complication when attempting to draw a line in the sand between personal freedom and protection is that a $100 wager does not impact the entire population in the same way.
The height and weight chart allows us an easy way to identify the impact of a 5 oz, 15% ABV glass of wine for any person within a reasonable tolerance for error. With gambling, we have no such chart or scale. We realize that a $100 wager to an individual with a negative net worth is not the same as a $100 wager to an individual with a $1 million net worth. Each person’s situation is unique and therefore quick and straight-forward regulation isn’t a reality.
And wager size v. wealth is just the tip of the iceberg of complications gambling creates for regulation. The task seems impossible and therefore I believe we often shrug our shoulders and say “there’s not much we can do.”
What Can We Do?
While cookie-cutter legislation isn’t a reality, it doesn’t mean we should sit on our hands. At the very least, we should be doing several things.
The amount of data collected on gamblers has never been greater. We have so much information regarding money spent, time played, and frequency of visits to highlight a few and we should be combing the information looking for trends, patterns, or other signs that would help identify an individual as a potential problem gambler.
Additionally, we should use the data to track behavior over time to identify how different products are used, if certain products have higher rates of addiction, the role access (retail and online) has in gambling habits, and much more.
We are collecting mountains of data. Let’s use it.
Educating the Public
I do not believe the average consumer understands gambling addiction. We barely understand substance abuse addiction, so it’s not surprising that we would be extremely clueless about a behavioral addiction.
Awareness campaigns conducted by third parties should be used to at least bring the reality of gambling addiction into the public eye. Knowledge is power in the prevention and treatment of addiction and leveraging all of the tools we have available to warn of the dangers of gambling in addition to the responsible gambling messaging that is already in use.
Balancing personal freedom vs consumer protection is always a tricky task and with gambling, it’s even more difficult. However, that doesn’t mean we should sit around and do nothing. The steps we take today will help us to make even more informed decisions and policies in the future.