All new online games should be reviewed for their potential to cause harm and addiction and their appeal to children before they can be approved for market use, a report on gambling-related harm recommends.
The Gambling Commission should establish a system for testing all new games against a series of harm indicators, according to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry.
A game which scores too highly must not be approved.
Current testing criteria of new games “astonishingly” do not consider the addictiveness or potential harm that could be caused, the Committee’s report said.
A third of a million people in the UK are considered problem gamblers, and according to a separate report from the Public Accounts Committee, a further 1.8 million people are considered “at risk”.
Younger people are most vulnerable, with around 55,000 (1.7%) of 11 to 16-year-olds classified as problem gamblers, 2.7% as at risk gamblers, and 31.5% as non-problem gamblers, Gambling Commission analysis shows.
Boys are more likely to be problem or at-risk gamblers than girls, it suggests.
The committee’s report says successive governments and regulators have failed to keep up with the revolution in the UK gambling sector, which has seen gambling become unsupervised and available 24-7 online.
Video games have also started to incorporate gambling-like features which use virtual currencies and in-game items such as loot boxes and skins, the report notes.
A loot box is a virtual item which can be purchased to receive a further random item which can help a player progress in the game.
Claire Murdoch, the director of mental health for the NHS, has previously said gaming companies should either ban loot boxes from their products or stop selling them to children
The committee report said online games which include loot boxes should be regulated as “games of chance” and that if a product “looks like gambling and feels like gambling” it should be regulated as such.
The committee also heard from witnesses who said playing on fruit machines while under 18 had acted as a gateway to the problem gambling they later developed.
But it concluded it “must ensure that we are tackling the current gateways into gambling for children and young people, not those of 10, 15 or 20 years ago”.
The minimum age to participate in gambling online should be raised to 18, it added.
The committee heard repeated examples from bereaved families of young men who started gambling underage and later took their lives.
It said stronger enforcement action is required, including regular visits to betting shops and arcades and an age-testing scheme for online gambling operators.
To help prevent suicide, GPs should be given guidance on asking patients with symptoms of anxiety and depression whether they have any gambling problems, and signposting them to help.
Doctors should also be required to inform a coroner if they suspect a death by self-harm was gambling-related.
This would help rectify a dearth of statistics on suicides that may be linked to problem gambling.
The report also recommends that banks work with UK Finance to create a common protocol on blocking gambling payments, which would include a 48-hour “cooling-off period”.
Several banks, including Barclays and Lloyds, are already offering this service to help their customers stay in control of their money.
Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McArthur said it was already working on a number of the committee’s 65 recommendations.
He said: “We have made considerable progress in many areas to make gambling safer. We have tightened the regulation of the online sector and taken much tougher enforcement action against operators, including suspending and revoking licences.
“In the weeks ahead we will be publishing plans to remove potentially addictive features in games, further improve customer interaction and strengthen affordability checks.
“We recognise that criticism is something that all regulators face. Where the criticisms are justified we will learn from them, but as we have been completely transparent and candid in all the evidence we have given to the various committees, in many areas this and other recent reports are playing back issues we have raised, know we need to work on and are already working to improve.”
Separately, academics have written an open letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, urging them to implement a statutory levy to fund effective prevention and treatment of gambling harms that is free “both from industry influence and the perception of industry influence”.
Writing in the BMJ, they say funds for research into gambling harms and their reduction should be distributed through recognised independent organisations, such as UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health Research.