Why do this? Why me?

Transaction blocking is available in the UK for gambling activity; a bank will, at the request of the customer, refuse to action card payments on gambling platforms. As I struggle with alcohol use my reaction to asking if this could be useful for those with alcohol problems was: “yes, of course that would be useful! If banks offered transaction blocking on alcohol purchases it not only would have prevented most of my many relapses but also would likely have limited the length of those relapses and in turn the health, social and financial costs too. Also, this could be used by anybody wishing to do so at a national (and even international) level – and why stop there? Banks, retailers and consumers could work together to allow a population freedom over their health and money.

Excitedly I began to look into how banks could provide a self-exclusion from alcohol option. This is a problem personal to me, to those close to me and to society as a whole. Trying to tackle it seems about as meaningful a thing as I ought to be doing.

Is the gambling opt-out effective?

There is debate within the gambling and gaming industry about how effective this tool is for people wanting to decrease their gambling in general. Some argue it's a publicity stunt without sincere care for how effective it is. Others argue that with the help of support services, it is effective. It's generally agreed that opt-outs and self-exclusion work effectively when a person admits they have a problem and commits to sincere attempts to change. The support of family, friends and professionals greatly increases the chance of self-exclusion working.

It is worth mentioning that self-exclusion can't block cash transactions. This is important as new challenger banks are happy to issue cashless cards that cannot be used at ATMs which are themselves becoming infrastructure that may become obsolete in the future.

Why hasn't this been done? How could it be?

This topic is covered in depth by research commissioned by Alcohol Change UK conducted by Jessica Muirhead of the Institute of Alcohol Studies. Although that research focused on effective age-gating methods the same principles can be applied to self-exclusion. Briefly, it's easy for banks to block gambling transactions as they fall under a specific merchant category code (MCC). Every business is assigned a MCC by credit companies and these are now international standards. However, most alcohol retailers (almost all) acquire a MCC of 5411 which describes their business as 'Grocery stores and Supermarkets' and so cannot be blocked by banks without also blocking customers from being able to buy any food. Food self-exclusion is not recommended. But switching between MCC within the same transaction is possible and already exists in petrol stations to differentiate between fuel and groceries. An update to the current MCCs is recommended with alcohol receiving its own code.

Since alcohol products can be encoded onto barcodes this makes it easy to be flagged both in online transactions and cash register transactions. Once flagged the retailer's EPOS can then check with the bank whether the card being used for the transaction has a self-exclusion on it and the transaction will be declined. This will require retailers to make sure their database recognises all products containing alcohol but this is more of a software update than an expensive hardware one.

Why would banks and retailers (online and offline) want to do this?

I'm not idealistic; the bottom line for business is money. However, the reality is only a small number of people (at first) will adopt this and there will not be a sudden decrease in revenue. Software updates cost money but not by so much; every company with a website is doing them frequently. Banks always like to advertise themselves as the bank that supports customers with financial goals and alcohol does cost a lot if you have a problem. Banks try to advertise first-time accounts to young people to acquire customers. It could be a good idea to suggest that their particular youth account cannot be used to buy alcohol online/offline or any other age- restricted products. Retailers have also always liked to promote the health, safety and wellbeing of their customers and community. A bigger vision for them might be one of a retailer that adopts (and even pioneers) every industry standard possible from self-exclusion on alcohol purchases while giving consumers every possible well-thought-out choice regarding their food/drink purchases and financial resources.

Will this happen?

Changes like these are a big ask and won't come quickly. For example changing industry standards like MCCs, even on a fast track, takes years. I have come across plenty of people who have said this is impossible but they can never explain why it is impossible. There is nothing about this that has not already been done before from a legal perspective, a computer systems perspective, a business and banking perspective and even in society already. It will require a mindset of change and setting an example. It will require this from professionals involved in supporting those with alcohol problems, the public, the government, organisations, banks, retailers, every one of those endless but necessary boards and committees and also a little effort from myself. Everyone will have to communicate and work together. The results of this change could be profound to not just individuals but also their families, communities, the NHS, the police service and the overall well-being of the population. It's always a pipe dream until somebody does.

Sam Rook