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Gambling away people’s lives

Feeding addiction: in Walthamstow, east London – one of a large number of betting shops and casinos in the area. Photo Workers.

Problem gambling is on the rise and there is little regulation to protect those caught up in this quintessentially capitalist addiction…

Having the occasional flutter on the horses or buying a lottery ticket now and then won’t do any harm, but for some gambling is a serious addiction and not a random bit of fun. For these gamblers, betting and playing games to win money spirals out of control and devastates lives.

The scale of gambling addiction in Britain is growing. An estimated 430,000 people have a serious gambling addiction. And more than two million people in Britain are either problem gamblers or at low or moderate risk of addiction.

Problem gambling is defined as being addicted “to a degree that compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits”. The gambling regulator has warned that neither the government nor gambling companies (surprise!) are doing enough to tackle the huge problem.

A recent report by the Gambling Commission estimated that the number of British over-16s with a gambling problem had grown by a third in just a three year period, the rate rising from 0.6 per cent of over-16s in 2012 to 0.8 per cent in 2015 .

The rise is due to economic troubles associated with the global recession and an increase in the number of gambling outlets. It is easier than ever before to gamble, with a massive number of online betting shops and games sites enabling people to gamble 24 hours a day. Every year, a phenomenal sum is spent in Britain on gambling – somewhere between £7 billion to £13.8 billion pounds.

Gambling is often designated in the media as an “industry”, which is a bad joke, as nothing new or productive is generated in the process of gambling, except easy-come monetary profits for owners and large-scale misery for many customers.

Gambling and betting chains merely sequester other people’s money by duping and trickery. It is akin to stealing, without recourse to mugging or weaponry. An outrageous, unregulated racket, it shames us that it is currently tolerated in Britain in this form.

The NHS reckons that over half a million people currently are problem gamblers. The vast majority do not seek help for their addiction. The statistics show that only around 5 per cent of people seek help and only 1 per cent get treatment for their gambling problem. Yet gambling addiction can be treated through therapy.

Out of control

If a gambling problem is left to develop, debts can spiral out of control and people can become withdrawn and depressed, which often affects their professional lives and relationships with other people.

Gambling can become very addictive, as the adrenaline rush associated with the possibility of pulling off a big win often gets people hooked. Most can control the desire to gamble, and if they start losing, they will stop. But for some the dream of a win is too enticing. They will carry on going, regardless of how much money they lose along the way.

To an addict, the rush associated with winning becomes a priority in that individual’s life that usually continues despite the financial or relationship troubles it causes. Lives are ruined, and not just the gambler’s.

‘It is akin to stealing, without recourse to mugging.’

Apart from the adrenaline fix there appear to be some common causes of gambling addiction: the desire to fill a void and give a person something to do; a temporary escape from emotional problems or stress; the susceptibility of addictive personalities; the desire to block out difficult events or problems by turning to gambling; alcohol addiction where 50 per cent develop a gambling one too; depression, that doubles the likelihood of gambling addiction.

The lure of the betting shop or online gaming and betting websites has increased drastically with websites and bookies offering punters special offers, deals of the day and free bets of games to encourage people to gamble. The increase in addiction is fuelled party by the controversial fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), where betting shop customers can spend up to £100 every 20 seconds. A casual hobby can soon spiral into a serious addiction. FOBTs make up more than half of bookmakers’ annual revenues, raking in over £1.8 billion a year. There are now more than 34,000 FOBTs.

There are restrictions on how many FOBTs a betting shop can have, which is why you see so many betting shops – many from the same companies – close together on city streets. When residents object to yet more planning applications for new betting shops, local councils have few powers to restrict their spread.

Addiction rates

The commission also found high rates of addiction in other parts of the industry. Some 15.9 per cent of poker players in pubs and clubs were defined as problem gamblers, with the rate going up to 20.1 per cent in the rarer practices of spread betting and the use of betting exchanges. Online casino and slots gaming, one of the fastest-growing forms of gambling, showed a rate of 10.6 per cent. And with online gaming, more women are drawn into the net.

Governments have prevaricated on introducing curbs on FOBTs or limiting gambling adverts on television. Media rumours indicate that the Treasury opposes tough restrictions or curbs on maximum stakes on FOBTs because it fears losing its tax take.

A major shift in attitudes began in the mid-1990s with the rise of the Internet. Threatened by competition from online gaming companies, casino and betting shop owners lobbied for looser regulations. The Labour government’s Gambling Act of 2005 allowed advertising so long as operators included measures to address problem gambling in their establishments (as if!) and gave the green light for larger resort-style “super casinos” in major towns and cities.

Until 2007, ads for casinos and betting shops were restricted. Only small text ads were permitted, and the shops had to shield their interiors from the public eye.

David Currie, head of Britain’s advertising watchdog, has questioned the “liberalisation” of gambling, amid growing concerns that betting adverts are fuelling a surge in problem gambling. Betting was “perhaps not as regulated as it should be”, but he stressed that the Advertising Standards Authority alone could not solve the problem.

The big rise in advertising for betting companies is partly responsible for luring vulnerable people into gambling. Betting adverts were banned on British TV and radio until the sweeping Gambling Act was passed in 2005, giving companies the green light to promote betting and allowed the proliferation of betting shops in poor areas, many of them operating high-stakes roulette terminals.


Though companies must not place adverts in or around programmes aimed at under-18s and have agreed not to advertise before the 9pm watershed, they are allowed during live sports events. Televised football matches are awash with betting adverts. Despite cosmetic restrictions, the number of gambling adverts on British TV soared from 234,000 in 2007 to 1.4 million in 2012, according to Ofcom.

Research suggests that prosperous areas have about five bookmakers for every 100,000 people, while poorer areas have about twelve. Professor Jim Orford from Birmingham University estimates £297 million of the money taken by FOBT machines each year comes from problem gamblers, whose habit is damaging their relationships and careers.

‘Nothing new or productive is generated’.

The growth of unregulated and money-crazed capitalism has meant that gambling and betting in Britain have completely changed in character in recent decades until they now cast an oppressive cloud over society. Unregulated gambling ruins lives, tarnishes our high streets and hijacks sport, cannot be tolerated. Politicians must be forced to listen to the commonsense of the professions and local residents, and not bow down before the owners of betting and gaming businesses that are becoming offensively rich from exploiting some people’s failings.

We need real industry; we do not need to foster a false one like gambling. Let’s seriously curb and regulate the business in the hope of reducing the scale of the gambling problem. And ultimately, let’s educate with mass public relations campaigns while offering mass therapy to undermine its sway.