When the Fun Stops, Stop!

by George Hatjoullis

It is impossible not to be aware of an explosion of gambling possibilities. Every medium reminds you at every opportunity. TV advertisements present gambling as an essential part of enjoying life. Pity the fool that can enjoy a sports event without a flutter. More profoundly, gambling enables you to define yourself. No really, it does! I have seen it in a TV ad and so it must be true. Of course when the fun stops you stop. There I said it and this relieves me, and the gambling firms, of any liability should you not stop. You have free will? You have self-control? Caveat emptor. If you have a problem it is of your own making. We collectively warned you. Or so seems to be the logic.

One of the main arguments against banning behaviours is the spurious one of freedom of choice. By definition, if you are addicted or suffer from a compulsive disorder, you have no choice. Not everyone that gambles, or smokes, or drinks, or takes drugs, legal or otherwise, becomes addicted or unable to cease the behaviour. Not do they necessarily develop a problem or complications. From my own studies in addiction ( an MSc dissertation in psychology) I was surprised by the individual variation in response to drug use. It seems some people are more susceptible to developing problems from behaviours than others. What is even more surprising is the lack of consistency in public policy approaches to potentially problematic behaviours.

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times has pointed out that the USA is experiencing an epidemic of opiate addiction. Specifically, Utah is experiencing more deaths from opiate overdose than gun violence or car accidents. This is not simply an illegal heroin problem. The pharmaceutical companies are legally selling high potency opiates as pain killers. No one seems too concerned. Cigarettes, highly addictive and highly dangerous, are still legally sold, though no longer advertised. Alcohol, very destructive, is widely used and, like gambling, often promoted as an essential part of fun and self-definition. Other substances are banned and users subject to life changing criminal penalties. Where is the consistency?

Professor Nutt of Imperial College London suggested a consistent approach to substance use based on harm. His book, Drugs Without the Hot Air is well worth reading. He was fired as Chair of the UK government’s Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs for suggesting this approach. He attempted to illustrate the issue by comparing horse riding to the use of ecstasy and concluded that, based on harm arising, ecstasy was no more harmful than horse riding. Yet no one suggested criminalising horse riding. The dismissal speaks volumes about official attitudes to drug use. The same issue arises in Utah. The state refuses to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana for pain relief, a much less harmful and less addictive substance than opiates (and indeed in many ways tobacco and alcohol) because it is an ‘anti-drug’ state! Go figure.

The need is to replace inconsistency and preconception with proper research and information. Unfortunately providing proper research and information frequently runs foul of criminal law. We could start by banning the promotion of all potentially harmful behaviours unless accompanied by extensive independent research results on potential harm relative to some harm index. By harm is not just meant physical harm. The state should then create legal safe zones for extensive research into potential harm and the conditions under which harm from adopting behaviours can be minimised. This will lay the basis for a consistent evidence and information based policy for regulating potentially harmful behaviours. It may allow the decriminalization of some and warrant more active discouragement of others. Vested interest will of course fight this all the way. It can only be carried out by a rational clear thinking government that is willing to put aside preconception and prejudice. So why not elect one?

One of the positive side effects of this approach is that many behaviours will be taken out of the criminal sphere. This will release the police and the courts and the prisons to attend other matters. It will cut crime at a stroke. It will also allow the state to monitor and regulate the quality of product and service provision supporting some behaviours and, to tax them. If the net effect is to reduce the aggregate level of self-inflicted harm in society, as one expects it will be,  it will cut health costs and boost productivity. It is win-win. No really, why is no government doing this? Why don’t you elect one that will?