Gambling – A Functional Definition of Harm


Gambling is any game of chance or skill where a person risks something of value for the prospect of winning a prize. It can take many forms such as card games, fruit machines, bingo, horse and greyhound racing, football accumulators and sports events, or even betting on business, insurance, and stock market outcomes. Often gambling occurs in places such as casinos and racetracks, but it can also occur in gas stations, church halls, sporting venues, or on the Internet. There have always been people who make a living, dishonestly or otherwise, by gambling and there is a long history of legal prohibitions against it on moral, religious, or social grounds.

Despite its widespread use, gambling has the potential to cause harm for many people. The most common harms associated with gambling are financial, but there are also psychological and physical harms. There is a wide range of treatments available for problem gambling. The most effective are cognitive-behavioral therapies, which teach people to resist unwanted thoughts and behaviours. In addition, there are a number of medications that can be used to treat the symptoms of addiction and reduce cravings. However, more research is needed to develop more effective treatment options for gambling problems.

Harms resulting from gambling are varied and often difficult to measure, compared to the more specific and tractable harms associated with drugs and other unhealthy behaviours. This lack of consistent definitions, conceptualisations and measurement, impacts on the ability to develop a framework for harm minimisation that is relevant and useful for both treatment providers and policy makers.

This paper seeks to contribute to this goal by proposing a functional definition of gambling related harm that will allow it to be measured consistent with other public health issues. The definition has been developed through a multidisciplinary approach that includes a wide range of stakeholders in gambling research, treatment and services.

The functional definition of harm is designed to capture the breadth of the impact of gambling that can be experienced by a person who gambles and their affected others, as well as the wider community. This approach is based on a social model of health that recognises that gambling is an activity and that the impact is the result of a complex interaction between a person’s engagement in gambling and the wider community, including treatment and support services. This paper also offers a taxonomy of harms that will be useful in future research to identify and understand the complexity of gambling related harm.