For many people gambling is an occasional, harmless pastime, but for others it can lead to financial ruin, relationship breakdown or even suicide. And for those who do experience gambling addiction and other problems, specialist help has too often been hard to find.
This guide on gambling addiction will help identify problems and guide you through the available treatment options.
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT Problem gambling is often called the ‘hidden addiction’, as there will frequently be no outward signs that someone is struggling with addictive behaviour. The social and financial impact of the UK’s gambling problem, however, is becoming ever more visible. Many people gamble in some form, and most without experiencing any adverse effects. In a given year almost 60 per cent of British adults will gamble, including on the National Lottery, slot machines or online betting sites – there are currently 33m active online gambling accounts in the UK.1 However according to the Gambling Commission – the government body responsible for regulating the gambling industry – there are around 2m people experiencing some level of gambling harm, and 340,000 who could be classified as problem gamblers.
WHAT IS A PROBLEM GAMBLER? A problem gambler is someone experiencing addictive behaviour defined by the World Health Organization as a gambling disorder. This is characterised as a ‘pattern of persistent or recurrent gambling behaviour’ where gambling can take precedence over other interests or daily activities and where people have impaired control over the frequency, duration or intensity of their gambling. The behaviour patterns associated with a gambling disorder can be severe enough to lead to ‘significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning’, states WHO. The mental health issues associated with problem gambling, meanwhile, can be severe enough to result in suicide.
Do you have a gambling Problem?
COUNTING THE COST It’s not just on the individual where the impact is felt, however. An analysis by the IPPR think tank of the health, welfare, housing and criminal justice costs associated with problem gambling put the combined price tag at up to £1.16bn per year for the UK as a whole.
One particularly concerning aspect is the number of young people who could potentially go on to experience problems. While the minimum legal age for most gambling in the UK is 18, people can buy scratch cards and lottery tickets at 16 and many gaming machines in amusement arcades and other venues have no age limit. Young people experiencing gambling issues are more likely to truant and perform poorly at school, and, crucially, are also more likely to develop a gambling disorder in adulthood.
DEVELOPING HABITS A 2019 Gambling Commission report found that almost as many 11- to 16-year-olds had spent their own money on gambling in the previous week than had drunk alcohol, taken drugs or smoked cigarettes.6 Just under 2 percent of this age group were already classified as problem gamblers. Worryingly, while problem gambling can remain hidden from family, friends and colleagues for years, the issue has also largely been unseen by addiction treatment providers, wider health professionals and policy makers. Currently less than 3 percent of people with a gambling disorder are receiving treatment for their addiction.
What does effective treatment for gambling addiction look like, and how do you access it?
GAMBLING REGULATION AND LEGISLATION High street and online gambling providers need a licence issued by either the Gambling Commission or local authority, while gambling advertising is subject to the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) primary advertising regulations and augmented by the 2007 Gambling Industry Code for Responsible Gambling. Gambling legislation recently made national headlines after the government cut the maximum stake it was possible to place on controversial fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – often called the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ – from £100 to £2, while a 2019 paper published in the BMJ argued for a revision of the 2005 Gambling Act to include a compulsory levy on the industry to support people with gambling problems.