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An assessment of the existing landscape of longitudinal data collection related to gambling

RESEARCH TEAM:

Silvia Galimberti
Rachel Hesketh
Dr Emma Disley

Jan 2022

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Longitudinal data on gambling is vital for understanding the scale of the issue and informing the policy response.

Public Health England estimated that 40 per cent of the adult population of England gambled in 2018, rising to more than 50 per cent when the National Lottery is included.¹ While for many people gambling will be little more than a recreational activity, for others it will be associated with substantial harms. These include financial impacts, implications for mental and physical health, employment, education, cultural harms, relationship disruption and links to criminal activity.²

A lack of data presents a significant barrier to understanding the harms associated with gambling in the UK context. A 2021 assessment by the Policy Institute for Action Against Gambling Harms concluded that the lack of longitudinal data, which observes the same individuals over time, makes it difficult to reach firm conclusions about the nature of the relationship between gambling and negative outcomes for gamblers.³ Similarly, Public Health England recently highlighted that ‘most of the studies published on gambling and harm do not allow us to determine that gambling came before the harm’.⁴

Longitudinal studies have a unique ability to shed light on individual gambling trajectories – movements between different gambling states, including into and out of problem gambling. Cross-sectional prevalence data cannot offer this insight. This is because a stable gambling prevalence rate cannot distinguish between the same group of individuals gambling over time or different individuals gambling at different times, or something in between.⁵ To understand how people’s gambling behaviour changes over time (and to make inferences about why), the same individuals must be followed over time.

Longitudinal data on gambling is vital for understanding the scale of the issue and informing the policy response

This study offers an assessment of the options for expanding longitudinal data collection on gambling in the UK.

Commissioned by the charity Action Against Gambling Harms (AGH), this study provides an assessment of the landscape of longitudinal data collection on gambling in the UK.

This includes identifying existing data sources, scoping opportunities to add questions on gambling to existing studies, and assessing the feasibility and cost of setting up a new longitudinal study on gambling. The study is based on a review of literature and data sources, interviews with experts in gambling research and policy, and consultation with polling providers.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Longitudinal data collection on gambling in the UK is currently very limited. We identified three longitudinal studies in the UK that have included, or plan to include, gambling related questions: (1) the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC); (2) the Millennium Cohort Study; and (3) Understanding Society. Just one of these, the ALSPAC study, has collected multiple waves of data on gambling from its participants.
  • We identified a further 16 longitudinal studies currently underway in the UK that do not currently (and have not previously) gathered data on gambling, but could be approached to include gambling-related questions. The suitability of these surveys for gathering such data would need to be assessed on an individual basis, with most following specific age cohorts rather than providing a picture of the national (adult) population.
  • While adding gambling questions to existing longitudinal studies represents a cost-effective approach to enhancing data collection, the process of getting new questions added is likely to be lengthy, with tight constraints on the number of questions that it would be possible to include.
  • Setting up a new study provides the funder with much greater flexibility on survey content, the sample recruited and the frequency of data collection, but is commensurately more expensive. Stand-alone gambling studies are also at greater risk of non-response and attrition, where participants drop out over time.
  • While there have been no dedicated large scale longitudinal studies of gambling in the UK, these have been conducted in other country contexts, for example in New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, the United States and Canada. These studies could offer a template for the way in which new studies can be developed and delivered in practice, and insight into their strengths and limitations. These studies have tended to be government-backed.
  • An issue to consider with all forms of longitudinal data collection on gambling is how to ensure sufficient representation of problem gamblers in the sample, given the low prevalence of problem gambling in the population. This can be addressed through the use of larger samples, or more purposive sampling techniques. It is therefore easier to respond to this challenge when setting up a new survey rather than when adding questions to an existing one.
  • Qualitative research can produce a more in-depth understanding of individuals’ gambling trajectories and the harms they and those around them experience as a consequence of their gambling. Qualitative studies can be valuable complements to data gathering via quantitative surveys, and can also be commissioned as stand-alone research projects.

Options for consideration

We identified six specific options to expand longitudinal data collection on gambling for AGH to consider. The options differ across a range of dimensions - in the data they can be used to collect, the speed with which they can gather data, their population coverage and their cost, among others. Given the paucity of existing longitudinal data collection in the UK, each option has the potential to expand our understanding of people’s gambling behaviours and the harms they experience as a result.

Support the development of the UK’s only existing longitudinal dataset on gambling via the ALSPAC survey
Advocate for the expansion of the new gambling module in Understanding Society
Approach other longitudinal surveys about including gambling-related questions
Fund the set-up of a new longitudinal panel study on gambling in the UK
Collect longitudinal data on gambling via an existing online panel
Fund the set-up of a new longitudinal qualitative study on gambling

Rather than seeing these options as mutually exclusive, where one should be selected over the others and the remainder discarded, their different strengths and foci mean that it may be more helpful to see them as complementary, with benefits to pursuing multiple options over time.

The sequencing of these options then becomes relevant. The research team suggest that priority steps could be supporting the expansion of an existing longitudinal dataset (via the ALSPAC study), and engaging with researchers leading the new, planned Understanding Society gambling module. The introduction of a new longitudinal panel study may be best seen as a longer-term consideration, given the resources required to deliver a robust and useful study. Such a study could benefit substantially from a qualitative component, though this could also be funded at any point as a stand-alone study.

1 Public Health England (2021b).

2 Public Health England (2021b).

3 Hesketh et al. (2021).

4 Public Health England (2021b).

5 Williams et al. (2020).

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