You probably don’t see yourself as a gambler. But many of us – about 32 million to be precise – have participated in some form of gambling in the past year. And when you look at the number of ways in which we can lose our money – from playing the National Lottery, bingo or gaming machines to betting on the horses, doing the football pools or visiting casinos – odds are that most of us gamble more often than we believe.
Since the Gambling Act 2005 relaxed rules on advertising for casinos and online gambling sites and introduced powers to license so-called super-casinos, fears have been raised about a possible surge in problem gamblers. Just before the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007 was published two months ago there was a flurry of media stories predicting exactly this.
But they were wrong. Contrary to speculation, the number classed as problem gamblers – more than 250,000 – is about the same as in the last prevalence survey in 1999. And the number of adults who gamble has fallen by about one million in the past eight years.
However, with more than £10bn expected to be lost by punters next year, Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, denies claims of scaremongering over the problem.
“People seem to think there’s no problem because it has stabilised,” says Griffiths, who co-authored the prevalence study. “But a quarter of a million adult problem gamblers is a public health issue.
“Problem gambling can negatively affect significant areas of a person’s life, including their physical and mental health, employment, finances and relationships.”
Problem gambling often exists alongside other disorders, which can either exacerbate or be exacerbated by gambling, including depression, guilt, suicidal feelings and suicide attempts. Additionally, says Griffiths, there is often a link with alcohol or drugs to cope with anxiety or depression caused by gambling problems. Conversely, alcohol may trigger the desire to gamble in the first place – and only time will tell whether 24-hour licensing will have an impact on the prevalence of gambling addiction.
Given the high levels of substance misuse and mental health issues among problem gamblers, Griffiths believes that service users at alcohol and drug treatment facilities, mental health centres and outpatient clinics, as well as probation services, should be screened for gambling problems.
He also points to evidence of links to domestic violence and child abuse. A study of women admitted to the emergency department at a university hospital in Nebraska, US, revealed that a woman whose partner was a problem gambler was 10.5 times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence than a partner of a non-problem gambler. And in 2003, the National Coalition Against Legalised Gambling reported that, with the opening of casinos in South Dakota, child abuse and domestic violence rose by 42% and 80% respectively.
One of Griffiths’s biggest concerns is the number of adolescent gamblers. The 250,000 problem gamblers does not include young gamblers, and the figure for them is two to three times higher than for the adult gambling population. Griffiths believes this is because young people are more vulnerable to the negative consequences of gambling.
“Education can be severely affected and they may acquire a criminal record as most problem gamblers have to resort to illegal behaviour to feed their addiction,” he says. “Gambling is an adult activity and the government should consider legislation that restricts gambling to adults only.”
But with the growing use of online gambling making access easy for today’s IT-savvy young people, this will be a difficult task. Griffiths predicts that online gambling presents “what could be the biggest cultural shift in gambling, and one of the biggest challenges concerning the psychosocial impact of gambling”.
He adds: “Many, such as young people, problem gamblers, drug or alcohol abusers and those with learning disabilities, would be prevented from offline gambling by responsible members of the gaming industry. But remote gambling operators provide little in the way of gatekeeping. Preventing under-age gambling is difficult, if not impossible. In cyberspace how can you be sure that young people do not have access to internet gambling by using a parent’s credit card?”
The Salvation Army sees people whose lives have been destroyed by gambling. Mike Lloyd-Jones, commanding officer at Coventry City Salvation Army, meets people with gambling problems from every strata in life. “One man worked full-time and was well paid but had a gambling addiction. He borrowed money from his parents. But he had to tell his wife they were in debt to the tune of thousands of pounds. Their children were at private school and had to be taken out so there was a huge impact on them.”
There is one casino in Coventry, with a second due to open – bizarrely, opposite the Salvation Army’s office. Inevitably, staff will see future clients going through the casino doors.
The Coventry office offers debt counselling and counselling from psychotherapists. About one-third of referrals relate to people with problem behaviour, of whom most are gamblers. Lloyd-Jones says: “With each one there are other key issues – for example, stress, depression, alcohol or drug use, which make them turn to gambling and vice-versa. Few are addicted to gambling who would have that as the sole issue there is normally another addictive behaviour too. This is life-or-death stuff for some people.”
Helpline for addicts
The charity GamCare is only too aware of this. Set up 10 years ago it provides treatment, education and research on problem gambling. Last year, it received 30,000 calls to its helpline – up 34% on 2005.
Head of clinical services Adrian Scarfe says: “The immediate outcome of a gambling problem is debt. We no longer consider it unusual to have people coming to us with debts of £300,000 plus.
“I can’t think of anyone who has come to us where gambling hasn’t affected their family and relationships. One thing that gamblers are good at is lying. When that is discovered, not only is there a huge debt but the lies can lead to broken relationships.”
Scarfe sees three types of problem gamblers: escape gamblers, where the habit becomes the automatic way of coping with stress those who get a buzz from it and those who are competitive, like risk and think they can beat the casino or the bookie.
Many gamblers tell Scarfe that the only way out is suicide. “If you are six figures in debt you either get caught up in illegal activities or loan sharks, you gamble more, or you think suicide.”
It will be a couple of years before we see the real impact of the growth in online gambling and the relaxed rules on advertising. But you only need look at the success of the National Lottery to see how attractive gambling has been made. “It could be you” is a catchphrase that lodges in the imagination. Sadly though, it is much more likely not to be – and those who continue to think it will be have the odds stacked against them.
SUPPORT AND ADVICE
People with a gambling addiction can find treatment, support and advice from sources including:
● Aquarius 0121 622 8181
The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007
Gambling addiction and its treatment within the NHS
The growing gambling problem
Contact the author
This article appeared in the 22 November issue under the headline “A huge loss to us all”