Literature reviews carried out by myself and others in the gambling studies field have concluded that electronic gaming machines (EGMs such as slot machines, pokie machines, video lottery terminals [VLTs], etc.) tend to have a higher association with problem gambling than other forms of gambling. Although any form of gambling can be potentially problematic, there is surprisingly little in the academically peer-reviewed gambling literature showing that horse race betting has a high association with problem gambling, particularly in comparison to activities such as EGM gambling.
Along with individual susceptibility and risk factors of the individual gambler, the most important determinants in the development and maintenance of problem gambling are structural characteristics, particularly those relating to the speed and frequency of the game (and more specifically event frequency, bet frequency, event duration and payout interval). More specifically, I have argued that researchers in the gambling studies field need to think about game parameters rather than specific game type when it comes to any association with problem and pathological gambling and that event frequency is the single most important determinant.
A study by Dr. Debi LaPlante and colleagues in the European Journal of Public Health examining types of gambling and level of gambling involvement (using data from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey of which I was one of the co-authors) indicated that when level of gambling is accounted, no specific type of gambling was associated anymore with disordered gambling, and that level of involvement in gambling better characterizes problem gambling than individual forms of gambling. In fact, this paper also concluded that:
“Two games, private betting and betting on horses, had a reversal of association. After controlling for involvement, individuals who engaged in private betting or betting on horses were significantly less likely to have gambling-related problems than people who did not…One interesting, and perhaps unanticipated, finding was that the nature of the relationships between private betting and betting on horses and gambling problems changed when we considered the influence of involvement: engaging in these types of gambling, but not other types, seemed to protect players against developing gambling problems. This finding suggests that the apparent risk between gambling activities and developing gambling-related problems resides, perhaps primarily or even entirely, among individuals who have high rates of involvement. For others who do not have high rates of involvement, playing these types of games might reflect social setting characteristics (e.g. norms) that encourage control and preclude excessive gambling”.
Similar results were also found in an Australian study by Dr. James Phillips and his colleagues in a 2013 issues of the Journal of Gambling Studies. A 2009 study by Dr. Thomas Holtgraves in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors analysed all data from population-based surveys conducted in Canada between 2001 and 2005 comprising 21,374 participants (including 12,229 who had gambled in the past year). Using the Problem Gambling Severity Index to assess problem gambling, the study found that horse race gamblers had the lowest prevalence rates of problem gambling along with those that played bingo and bought raffle tickets (3%). Some types of gambling activity such as sports betting (25%) and playing video lottery terminals (18%) were much higher.
The most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey [BGPS] published in 2011 reported that the most popular British gambling activity was playing the National Lottery (59%), a slight increase in participation from 2007 (57%). The prevalence of past-year betting on horse races was 16%. Among past year gamblers, problem gambling prevalence rates were highest among those who had played poker at a pub/club (12.8%), online slot machine games (9.1%) and fixed odds betting terminals (8.8%). The lowest problem gambling rates were among those that played the National Lottery (1.3%) and scratchcards (2.5%). Horse race gamblers also had one of the lower prevalence rates for problem gambling (2.7%). However, problem gamblers also gamble on many different activities and problem gambling prevalence was highest among those that gambled on nine or more different activities on a regular basis (28%).
More recently in 2014, Carla Seabury and Heather Wardle published an overview of gambling behaviour in England and Scotland by combining the data from the Health Survey for England and Scottish Health Survey (n=11,774 participants). It was reported that two-thirds of the sample (65%) had gambled in the past year, with men (68%) gambling more than women (62%). The findings were similar to the previous BGPS reports and showed that in terms of past-year gambling, the most popular forms of gambling were playing the National Lottery (52%; 56% males and 49% females) and scratchcards (19%; 19% males and 20% females). One in ten people (10%) had a engaged in horse race betting (12% males and 8% females).
Again, problem gambling rates were also examined by type of gambling activity. Results showed that among past year gamblers, problem gambling was highest among spread betting (20.9%), playing poker in pubs or clubs (13.2%), bet on events other than horse racing with a bookmaker (12.9%), gambling at a betting exchange (10.6%) and playing machines in bookmakers (7.2%). The activities with the lowest rates of problem gambling were playing the National Lottery (0.9%) and scratchcards (1.7%). Problem gambling among horse race gamblers were also among the lowest (2.3%). Problem gambling rates were highest among individuals that had participated in seven or more activities in the past year (8.6%) and lowest among those that had participated in a single activity (0.1%).
Along with Filipa Calado, I recently co-authored two reviews of problem gambling worldwide (one on adult gambling and one of adolescent gambling). None of the studies we reviewed highlighted horse racing to be of particular concern in relation to problem gambling and only two countries (France and Sweden) was horse race betting one of the most preferred and prevalent forms of gambling. Analysis of a 2011 French national prevalence survey by Dr. Jean-Michel Costes reported that horse race betting was fourth in a list of six gambling activities that were most associated with problem gambling (with Rapido [a high event frequency lottery game], sports betting, and poker being the most problematic gambling forms). There is also evidence from gambling treatment service providers that horse race betting is much less of an issue than other forms of gambling. In Finland, the national helpline for problem gamblers, [Peluuri] only 1% of the telephone calls received concern horse betting. In Germany, two studies surveying therapists that treat problem gambling found that the vast majority of treatment was for slot machine gamblers (approximately 75%-80% of clients) whereas treatment for horse race gamblers was 0.6%-1.7% of clients. Unfortunately, the UK problem gambling helpline run by GamCare does not separate horse race betting from any other sports betting in its’ annual helpline statistics. The most recent (2016) GamCare report noted that 11% of their callers concerned betting in a bookmaker’s but this figure included all betting not just horse race betting.
In 2008, I was invited to write a report for the Gambling Commission and reported that internationally, the vast majority of problem gamblers that contact helplines or seek treatment report machine gambling as their primary form of gambling. In Europe many countries report that it is problem EGM gamblers that are most likely to seek treatment and/or contact national gambling helplines (rather than other forms of gambling including horse race betting) including 60% of gamblers seeking help in Belgium, 72% in Denmark, 93% in Estonia, 66% in Finland, 49.5% in France, 83% in Germany, 75% in Spain, and 35% in Sweden.
All data collected in Great Britain and elsewhere in the world demonstrate that horse race betting has a relatively low past-year participation rate. All major literature reviews have concluded that electronic gaming machines tend to have a higher association with problem gambling than other forms of gambling including horse race betting. Although no form of gambling is immune from problem gambling, horse race betting has one of the lowest associations with problem gambling. Furthermore, some analysis of the most recent BGPS data has demonstrated that after controlling for gambling involvement, individuals who engage in horse race betting are significantly less likely to have gambling-related problems than people who did not.
For the vast majority of horse gamblers, the activity is a discontinuous form of gambling in that they make one or a few bets in a small time period but then not bet again for days or weeks. Therefore, the event frequencies for betting on horse racing are much lower than other gambling activities and helps explain why there is a low association with problem gambling compared to activities that have much higher event frequencies (e.g., slot machines, roulette, blackjack, etc.).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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