Normal – noun. Conforming to a standard; usual, typical or expected.”

“Normalisation – noun. The process of bringing or returning of something to a normal condition or state.”

I am not quite normal. I know this to be true because I have been told so repeatedly through my life – by family, friends, girlfriends, priests, colleagues, clients, doctors, witch doctors, barmen, policemen, magistrates and of course my cat. Surely, I reason, they can’t all be wrong. The good news is that as a result of repeated exposure to imputations that I am not quite normal, I have grown rather philosophical about it. After all, these days, who amongst us is normal anyway?

The gambling industry is certainly not normal. It’s a screwed-up, messed-up corner of the universe where technology, politics, regulation, psychology, psychiatry, economics and sociology chaotically collide. That’s part of what makes gambling interesting and (whisper it carefully) fun. As Vincent Van Gogh observed, “Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk but no flowers grow on it.”

So much for the industry – but is the act of gambling itself normal? It is increasingly in vogue to suggest that gambling is not a normal activity and that efforts to position it as such – so-called “normalisation” – is a process to be resisted. However, while there are many reasons to be concerned about gambling, it is not at all clear that betting and gaming are – or should be considered – abnormal; or even that this is a particularly helpful debate.

If we take as our definition of “normal” something that is “usual, typical or expected”then it seems that a certain level of gambling is in fact perfectly normal. After all, humans have been gambling for millennia. Clemens France wrote (in 1902): “Gambling appears to be indigenous amongst all the races”; while as the gambling historian Dave Schwartz recounts, astragali (cube-shaped bones from the human foot) are believed to have been used for dice in Mesopotamia around 7,000 years ago (Schwartz chose as the title for his excellent history of gambling, ’Roll the Bones’).

Across the five major gambling prevalence surveys carried out in Great Britain between 1999 and 2015, the proportion of the adult population engaging in some form or other of gambling ranges between two-thirds and three-quarters. Of course, this figure is bolstered by the near majority of adults who play the National Lottery draw (46% in the 2015 survey) – something that is actively promoted by the British Government and the British Broadcasting Corporation (and which is perhaps not the subject of gravest societal concern).

Weeding out lottery-only gamblers, we are left with the fact that between 40% and 50% of the adult population participates in gambling in any given year, which seems to me to fall broadly within the bounds of common (and so “normal”) behaviour.

 

Of course, normality is context-specific. I don’t know for sure but would guess that a night out at the bingo raises fewer eyebrows in Stockton-on-Tees than it might do amongst the residents of Mayfair. Conversely, catching the occasional opera may be quite common in Kensington but perhaps less so in Toxteth. There are religious and cultural aspects too. In Islam, gambling is considered haram(forbidden by Allah) and so by definition it may also be considered in that contextto be abnormal.

 

Some formats – playing table games in a casino, doing the football pools, playing poker in pubs and betting on the outcome of Love Island – have relatively low participation rates; but the act of gambling itself is hardly unusual. On this basis, we might say that gambling is more “normal” than some leisure pursuits (theatre-going, taking part in pub quizzes, ballroom dancing and bog-snorkelling to name a few) but less “normal” than others (watching TV, dining out, listening to music, going for drinks, playing sports etc). Some may not wish that this were so but it seems perverse to deny the facts.

So if gambling is actually fairly common, why are some people so keen on arguing either that this is not or should not be the case?

Part of the reason may be that normality is not simply a question of what is commonplace but also of what is expected. According to the British Sex Survey, a majority of adults will admit to watching online pornography. This suggests that the activity is fairly common; but whether or not it is “normal” is highly subjective – and herein lies the rub. One’s view of whether any particular activity is or is not normal may carry with it a level of moral judgement.

The central overt issue in the normalisation debate in both Great Britain and Australia is whether the attitudes of children and young people towards gambling are being changed in ways that are unhealthy for their development and well-being. In particular, there is concern that the heightened visibility of gambling – and its glamorisation by association with professional sports – may lead to negative consequences. Critics of the industry argue that young people are increasingly coming to see gambling as a normal leisure activity and that this poses health risks.

This is something that we need to take seriously. We know that on a probabilistic basis, children and young people (particularly males) may be vulnerable to disordered gambling. Neuroscience tells us that the brain’s risk regulation functions do not become fully developed until we are into our twenties (one reason why a group of researchers writing in The Lancetearlier this year argued for an extension in the definition of adolescence to the age of 24). We also know from surveys undertaken in Great Britain, that children and young adults are more likely than their elders to perceive gambling as glamorous and as a means to make money.

Researchers at Deakin University in Victoria have claimed that heavy advertising for betting firms around televised sporting events encourages a belief in young Australians that gambling is an integral part of sport. The central premise of this claim does not seem implausible even if the extent of the effect is unclear; and is something that should give us pause for thought.

It seems to me that what we ought to be concerned about is whether young people hold mistaken beliefs about gambling, how gambling marketing may affect their views or influence behaviour and whether they have a good understanding of the risks involved (in terms of health, finance and well-being). Moreover, heavy engagement with gambling is rare and any suggestion to the contrary should be countered vigorously.

Part of the problem is that over the years certain operators have claimed that gambling is “just another form of entertainment”.It is not. It is different in many ways to going to the cinema or popping out for steak and chips at the Berni Inn – and it can involve severe harms for the individual and for wider society.

Tackling the advertising and sponsorship issues head-on, it feels as though something has got to give before too long – particularly on the question of the exposure of young people to what is, after all an age-restricted activity. This view appears to be reasonably common across the industry with many operators expressing discomfort with the weight of gambling advertising (particularly on TV before the 9pm watershed).

It would be misguided to perceive industry expressions of concern as being solely motivated by self-interest (for example, incumbents seeking to keep out challengers). People who work in gambling often have a keen sense of when something is not quite right. The claim by the otherwise admirable gambling minister, Tracey Crouch that those with qualms should simply not advertise suggests a misunderstanding of how regulated markets function and represents a disappointing abdication of responsibility.

There is clearly a number of issues with the way that gambling is promoted in this country and elsewhere, particularly in the areas of advertising, sponsorship, affiliates and bonusing – but bald claims of “normalisation” may be a red herring.

The problem with arguing that gambling is not normal is the implication that it is therefore abnormal; that by implication it is not healthy and so ought to be discouraged.

This (not unreasonably) upsets those who work within the industry; and while we may not care too much about the sensibilities of gambling executives, we ought to recognise that disparagement fuels adversarial relationships that in turn may not be conducive to problem solving. We do need a proper debate about pre-watershed advertising but we also need to be clear about what our concerns are. Vague statements around normalisation are likely to confuse such situations and retard progress.

On top of this, it may be that moralistic depictions of gambling as abnormal serve to reinforce social stigma around participation. We know that for some, a taboo can serve to stimulate heightened risk-taking – the blacker it’s painted, the more alluring it can be. The field of public health is littered with examples of well-intended campaigns that back-fired for this reason (remember the “Speed Kills” road safety campaign?). Meanwhile, attempts to marginalise the very act of gambling may inhibit help-seeking amongst those who may be suffering from disordered gambling by inadvertently deepening feelings of shame.

However, perhaps the most important reason to push back against the “normalisation” charge is that occasional gambling is actually…well…rather normal. Some may wish this were not so – but to claim otherwise is both delusional and an affront to the rights of adult consumers to make their own choices about how they get their kicks.