Chips on the table
As policymakers consider revising India’s 150-year-old gambling laws, the country should take a public health perspective on the issue
It is understood that the Law Commission of India is considering new gambling regulations. Though few specifics are known, there is no doubt that the legislation in India, which is more than 150 years old, needs to be made more relevant to the present day.
The approach legislators are likely to take might be described as: “It can’t be stopped, so might as well try to regulate it.” The potential revenue could interest the government enough to at least partially legalize gambling.
Types of gambling activities and the modes of gambling in India (and what Indians can access) have changed drastically since the 19th century legislation was framed. But what is equally, if not more important is to have a wider debate about gambling-related research, education, treatment and policy.
Gambling was a popular pastime in ancient and colonial India and continues to be so today. The Public Gambling Act of 1867 is the only law that regulates the activity in India.
The central government has vested individual state governments with powers to make gambling legal or illegal within their jurisdictions, which they do through state-specific amendments to the 1867 law.
Currently, the only legal forms of gambling in India are lotteries run in some states, horse racing, rummy card games and casinos (in two states).
Lotteries are legal in 12 states and five union territories, but are banned in 17 states. Anecdotally, India also has a huge illegal betting market and wagering on sports such as cricket is extremely popular.
So with change on the horizon for India’s gambling laws, now is a good time for the country’s policymakers to look again at how to formulate the direction for gambling-related research, education, treatment and policy.
First, it is crucial for Indian policymakers to conceptualize gambling and problem wagering as a public health issue. This is essential for the prevention and minimization of gambling-related problems.
Such an approach consists of a three-level prevention strategy: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention needs measures aimed at preventing gambling from becoming a problem in the first place by raising awareness about the potential for harm.
Secondary prevention measures are targeted at early diagnosis and treatment, involving screening in settings such as primary care and mental health services, followed by brief specialist interventions for gamblers and their families. And tertiary prevention involves measures such as specialist and intense psychological and psychiatric interventions for problem gamblers and support for their families.
Second, there must be consideration of the ethical aspects of funding gambling treatment and research. A debate needs to be had about who pays for research into gambling and treatment of related problems.
Some purists may see money accepted from the gambling industry as “blood money” and would reject this. In this scenario, research is exclusively dependent on the government for funding.
Alternatively, one could be more pragmatic, and take the position that funding from the industry can be accepted, but on the condition that it is subject to strict ethical scrutiny.
Third, India needs a national gambling strategy and a body to oversee it. This is also key to minimizing gambling-related harm. This independent body should be comprised of experts from the fields of gambling research, treatment, policy and academia.
Its function would be to advise the government on the research, education and treatment elements in a national responsible gambling strategy, and to determine both what is required to reduce harm from gambling as well as the levels of funding necessary to deliver the recommended priorities.
Finally, there needs to be more acknowledgement of the importance of research. There exists very little research on gambling in India. An ideal starting point could be more epidemiological research such as community based studies on the prevalence of gambling.
Once there is a greater understanding of the socio-demographics and prevalence of gambling and its associated problems (including types, patterns, and frequency), further research into co-occurring additional diseases and necessary treatment can follow.
A revision of India’s archaic gambling legislation is long overdue. Right now there is a great opportunity to formulate a national-level policy and strategy into the research, education and treatment aspects of gambling in India. That requires more than just a roll of the dice to get right – it needs key stakeholders to come together.
Sanju George is a senior consultant in addiction psychiatry at Rajagiri Hospital in Kerala, India.