Gambling – A Definition and Taxonomy of Harms Experienced in Relation to Gambling


Gambling is an activity in which people risk something of value – usually money or property – on the outcome of a future contingent event not under their control or influence, and for which there is some element of chance. The event could be a sporting event, the result of a lottery draw or election, or a game of skill such as poker. It is also possible to gamble on business or insurance matters, although this is generally referred to as speculating rather than gambling.

Some people may find gambling enjoyable and fun and may only gamble occasionally, but for some it can become a serious problem. It can damage physical and mental health, relationships, performance at work and study, and lead to debt, homelessness and even suicide. It can also affect family, friends and colleagues.

Public health approaches to gambling make reference to harm minimisation but there is a lack of a consistent definition of harm related to gambling and of an adequate conceptualisation of its breadth and experience. This paper proposes a new definition and taxonomy of harms experienced in relation to gambling.

The definition of a gambling event is as follows:

(a) The player or players place something of value on the outcome of a future contingent event which does not under their control or influence, in return for an immediate payment of some value. This includes betting on football accumulators, horse and greyhound races and other sports events as well as scratchcards. It excludes bona fide business transactions, contracts of indemnity or guaranty and life, accident and health insurance.

Gambling involves a choice based on probability, and the likelihood of winning depends on the number of ‘stakes’ placed. However, the more stakes placed, the less likely it is that a player will win, and the more he or she will lose. Moreover, the fact that an individual has lost in the past does not influence his or her chances of losing again in the future. This is known as the Gambler’s Fallacy.

The reasons why people gamble vary; they could be looking for excitement, the potential for a big jackpot win or to take their mind off stress. Research has shown that some types of gambling can be associated with mood changes and feelings of euphoria, which are linked to the brain’s reward system. People can often get into a ‘flow’ or state of dissociation when playing certain games, such as slots. This can be dangerous and should not be encouraged by providers of gambling products. It is important that people consider the harms of their gambling and seek help for problem behaviours. Various strategies can help, including talking to a friend or family member, attending a support group such as Gamblers Anonymous and getting some exercise. In addition, seeking professional support such as a therapist or psychologist can be beneficial. This is particularly the case if someone has co-occurring mental or physical problems. For example, some studies have shown that combining gambling with drug or alcohol abuse can exacerbate the effects of gambling.