Gambling is a pastime which many Irish people enjoy. It is deeply ingrained in our culture. In fact, Ireland has the third-highest losses, per person, on gambling – in the world. While for the majority of people who gamble, it is a relatively harmless bit of fun, there are many who experience harm from gambling. Problem Gambling (Gambling Addiction) is estimated to affect up to 40,000 people in Ireland. For every person with a gambling problem, there are estimated to be a further 8-10 people affected, meaning that there could be up to 400,000 people in Ireland feeling the negative impact of gambling-related harm.
The types of harm a person with a gambling problem may experience are:
• Financial issues (debt)
• Relationship issues
• Mental Health issues (Anxiety, Depression, Stress)
• Deterioration in Physical Health
• Issues at college or work (loss of productivity, absenteeism, difficulty concentrating)
• Suicidal Thoughts
So, how can you tell if you (or a person you care about) are showing signs of problem gambling?
Recognising the problem in yourself:
If you answer ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, you may be developing a gambling problem. Do you:
• gamble alone and often?
• continue gambling longer than you intended?
• spend more time on gambling than other favourite pastimes or interests?
• gamble every last euro you have?
• think about gambling every day?
• try to win back money you have lost with more gambling?
• find it difficult to stop yourself spending too much?
• lie to friends and family members about your gambling and how much you have spent or do you just not tell them about it?
• sometimes reach the point where you no longer enjoy gambling?
• feel depressed because of gambling?
• have trouble sleeping?
• feel that gambling is having a negative effect on other areas of your life, such as family and work?
If you are concerned about your gambling and want to make some changes, then these suggestions may be useful:
• Break the silence and talk to someone you trust, a counsellor or attend a Gamblers Anonymous or SMART Recovery meeting. Keeping a gambling problem secret only makes it harder to bring about change. Talking to someone about it can help reduce the stress of a gambling problem and help you to do something about it.
• Avoid high-risk situations. These include any situations which you know can lead to gambling in a harmful way, such as having your ATM or credit cards with you when gambling, gambling on your own or mixing alcohol with gambling. You may want to avoid risky situations such as talking about gambling, carrying large amounts of money or socialising close to gambling venues. If you have online accounts, shut them down and ask to be excluded from the service.
• Challenge your gambling thoughts. It’s difficult to cut down or stop gambling if you believe that you can win and will come out in front. Remember: nobody ever gambled their way out of their gambling problem.
• Prepare for gambling urges. Urges to gamble are common for people trying to cut down or stop. Preparing yourself can help you cope. Think of times or situations that are likely to trigger urges and have plans for alternative activities that can help distract you.
• Find alternatives to gambling. It’s important to replace gambling with activities that you find satisfying. Finding a range of alternatives can help, such as sports, being with family members and friends, hobbies, and relaxation exercises (e.g. yoga or meditation).
• Reward your progress. There is a lot of guilt and shame associated with having a gambling problem. Acknowledge any progress you’ve made and reward yourself with a non-gambling treat – a nice meal, a movie or something else you enjoy.
Recognising the problem in others:
Here are some signs you can look for if you’re worried about a family member, friend or fellow student. People with a gambling problem have a preoccupation with gambling and may:
• want to borrow money to gamble or to cover debts
• have changes in their sleeping and eating habits
• start to miss college, work or other regular commitments
• express suicidal thoughts
• sometimes celebrate their ‘good fortune’ by gambling more.
If you are concerned about another person’s gambling, there is a simple, 2 question screening tool, which is an indicator that the person would need to undergo a more thorough gambling addiction assessment:
Q1: Have you ever felt the need to bet more and more money?
Q2: Have you ever had to lie to people important to you about how much you gambled?
(Answering “Yes” to one or more of these questions, strongly indicates that further assessment is necessary.)
Helping a friend or family member
If you think a friend or family member has a gambling problem, try to show your concern without lecturing or criticising. Your comments may be met with defensiveness and denial. Don’t take this personally, but let the person know you care and explain how his or her gambling behaviour affects you. You may have to clear boundaries with the person. Don’t be manipulated into excusing, justifying, overlooking, enabling or participating in the person’s destructive behaviour.
If the person agrees that he or she has a problem, here are some tips:
• Help the person make contact with organisations that can help, such as those listed at the end of this article.
• Be supportive and encouraging of the person’s attempts toward change, however small.
• Expect that there may be steps backward (“slips”/relapses) as a normal part of the recovery process.
• Encourage activities that are not associated with gambling and try to support the person by limiting or stopping your own gambling.
• Become informed by finding out more about problem gambling.
Yesterday, it was widely reported that the international gambling operator, Paddy Power, was found, by the UK Gambling Commission, to have "encouraged a problem gambler (called 'Customer A') to keep betting until he lost five jobs, his home and access to his children". Many, who have an interest in the gambling addiction field, would not be surprised by this. What is surprising about this story is the fact that staff actually raised concerns about the problem gambler's situation, as he was working 5 jobs, but had "no money". For some readers, this may seem like basic common decency - like the bartender telling you when you've had enough. However, some weeks later, when the betting shop manager informed a more senior member of staff that the problem gambler in question would be visiting the shop less frequently, they were advised: “steps should be taken to try to increase Customer A’s visits and time spent in the gambling premises”.
This type of sharp practice is "grossly at odds with the licensing objective of preventing vulnerable people from being exploited by gambling", according to the UK Gambling Commission. Unfortunately, in my time counselling problem gamblers, I have been told, time and time again, that this type of practice occurs across the board with all gambling operators in Ireland. Enticements are offered to gamblers who are clearly in active addiction - which is not strange, considering that in most jurisdictions, at least 35% of gambling industry profits are made from problem gamblers (data for Ireland is not currently available).
In fact, a gambler is far more likely to be barred from a gambling establishment if they are winning regularly than if they are losing every penny they have - potentially leaving themselves and their families destitute.
Customer A was only advised to seek help for gambling addiction in August 2014, when a Paddy Power staff member met him on the street and learned that he had lost all of his jobs, was homeless and had lost access to his children.
The "responsible gambling" page of Paddy Power's website states: "We believe in fair play – not just for customers enjoying a bet, but in everything we do – and our practices are among the most responsible in the industry. We know that some people have problems with gambling, and we recognise that they need education, treatment, and support. All of our customer service agents are certified by GamCare and undergo regular GamCare training to ensure they offer the most professional service possible to those who might be suffering from a problem with gambling."
I do not want it to seem like I am on a crusade against Paddy Power. This type of immoral, unethical practice exists across the gambling industry. A brief look at the William Hill Staff Handbook (below), shows the typical attitude.
Regulation of the gambling industry is the only approach with any hope of having an impact on these utterly parasitic and predatory practices. Gambling operators consistently prey on vulnerable addicts, with little or no concern for their welfare or that of their children and other dependents.
I urge the new government to enact the Gambling Control Bill as soon as humanly possible.
In 2013, the Heads of the Gambling Control Bill were published. The purpose of the proposed legislation is to replace the out-of-date and un-fit for purpose, Betting Act 1931 and the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956. The proposed legislation seeks to regulate gambling in order to ensure:
All of these proposed measures would be welcomed by Problem Gambling Ireland, as the current vacuum in legislation only serves to create an environment where gambling-related harm can thrive. A dedicated Gambling Regulator with the power to press criminal charges against gambling licence-holders who breach the proposed laws would greatly reduce some of the sharp practices currently in evidence. Also, a Social Fund, into which gambling licence-holders would be compelled to contribute, would greatly increase the provision of dedicated gambling addiction services in the areas of treatment, prevention, education, research and evaluation.
However, the response from one of Ireland's Gambling Industry heavy-weights, Paddy Power, may be indicative of the general attitude to the proposed legislation within the industry. In theirsubmission to government in relation to the Heads of the Bill, they stated "We are concerned however by the proposal to apply the contribution to the Social Fund based on turnover (Head 80) given the intense international competition for online gambling and the narrow margins which generally apply for gambling products. We would encourage the Department to explore models from other jurisdictions that have similar systems in place which are working effectively, for example the UK where operators contribute voluntarily to the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT) on a flat rate based on scale". It is worth noting that only 63% of gambling licence-holders in the UK actually contributed to the fund in 2014/2015 and that they raised the paltry sum of £6.5 million from an industry which posted profits of of £1.42 billion in 2013 from Fixed Odds Betting Terminals alone. Paddy Power's pre-tax profits for 2014 were €166.6 million.
Surprisingly, Paddy Power, who are renowned for pushing the boundaries in their advertising campaigns, also took issue with the Department of Justice's proposals in relation to advertising and sponsorship. The gambling giant would prefer Codes of Practice and Codes of Conduct in gambling advertising (which already exist) rather than primary legislation. Paddy Power give the following example: "a failure to remove online promotional material within 12 hours could trigger a summary prosecution and sponsorship of an adult sports team which has one 17 year old player would infringe Head 74. We would respectfully query if such granular restrictions would be workable in practice.". I have no doubt that Paddy Power and other gambling industry members would have some difficulty with any restrictions, granular or otherwise, as it limits their ability to actively encourage problem gambling (which generates up to 75% of gambling industry profits in some jurisdictions) and to (inadvertently) promote gambling to children by advertising before the watershed and through sports sponsorship.
Some facts on gambling in Ireland and globally:
On behalf of the estimated 240,000 people in Ireland, whose lives are negatively impacted by gambling-related harm, all of us at Problem Gambling Ireland ask that the new Government act quickly to enact the Gambling Control Bill.
An excellent article in yesterday's Guardian newspaper (06.01.16) claims that the Chair of the UK's Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT) - a charity funded by the gambling industry - lobbied on behalf of that industry.
Unlike Ireland, the UK has numerous other organisations which are completely independent of any potential influence or conflict of interest from the industry.
Neil Goulden, the Chair of RGT since 2011, also chairs the gambling industry lobbying arm, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), since 2012. He had previously been on the board at Ladbrokes and was chairman of bookmaker and bingo group Gala Coral until 2014.
The Guardian claims that a 2013 gambling industry strategy paper, written by Goulden and Ladbroke's CEO, Richard Flynn, identified “a large degree of righteous paternalism” which would see the public mood “swinging away from smoking, heavy drinking, gambling, non-contributors and tax avoiders”. The paper went on to call for research “which helps to position gambling as an economically valuable and socially responsible leisure pursuit” (like heavy drinking, smoking and tax avoidance, presumably). It is worth noting that the Irish Department of Justice wrote in their 2010 document, 'Options for Regulating Gambling' - "It can be acknowledged from the start, that for some, the pairing of the words "responsible" and "gambling" is incongruous".
It could be argued that giving the gambling industry responsibility for encouraging responsible gambling (i.e., reducing the industry's profits) is more than a tad incongruous too. This is exactly what we have done in Ireland with the forming of the Irish Responsible Gambling Board's 'Gamble Aware'. While the Gamble Aware website provides some excellent information and support services, the silence from the organisation in terms of raising awareness around gambling addiction (compulsive gambling/problem gambling/pathological gambling) - and the industry's part in perpetuating those issues - is truly deafening. Take Gamble Aware's Twitter account, for example - set up in November 2011 and (4 tweets later) nothing since February 2012.
Just like the alcohol industry in Ireland, the gambling industry encourages you to 'enjoy gambling responsibly' and directs you to the Gamble Aware website (the alcohol equivalent being Drink Aware). Alcohol addiction has an independent organisation with 'teeth' - Alcohol Action Ireland - ready to take on the vested interests, lobby government and actively raise awareness. To date, there has been no such organisation dedicated to gambling addiction in Ireland.
My inspiration to set up Problem Gambling Ireland originally came from reading University College Dublin's research into gambling behaviours (specifically problem gambling) in Ireland , entitled 'Playing Social Roulette' (June 2015). In my work as an addiction counsellor in private practice, I was aware of the damage caused to individuals and their loved ones by gambling addiction. However, the report showed the shocking scale of the issue and the dearth of dedicated, independent services. Subsequent to reading the report, I was fortunate to be involved with the U-Casadh Project winning an Impact Award at the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards (2015). Attending the award ceremony in October, I was surrounded by social entrepreneurs who had followed their passion for positive social change. This was the final push I needed to make the move from having the idea to taking on the challenge. Currently I am operating the website, www.problemgambling.ie, on a voluntary basis. It is a free information resource for anyone who has been negatively affected by gambling. I am in the process of bringing together a Board of Directors (with no links to the gambling industry) in order to set up as a not-for-profit organisation. I intend, with the help of the Board, future volunteers and (possibly) staff, to further develop the organisation to lobby and advocate for improvements to treatment and changes in legislation, raise awareness of problem gambling, develop educational programs, develop treatment programs (and have them evaluated), undertake research, as well as monitoring gambling marketing and advertising.
On a final note, a Goldsmiths University (UK) report in 2014 warned that “the idea of ‘problem gambling’ is politically useful … It focuses attention on individual gamblers, rather than relationships between the industry, the state, products and policies.” These are the relationships that Problem Gambling Ireland, an independent organisation (with teeth) intends to examine.
Founder, The Gambling Clinic
B.A. Degree Counselling Skills & Addiction Studies
Member of the Association of Professional Counsellors & Psychotherapists in Ireland
Email: barry [at] thegamblingclinic.ie