Has gambling got out of control?

(Originally published by the Guardian)

Photo by Ralf Roletschek/ Wikimedia Commons
Most people are able to place a small bet once in a while without suffering any real consequences beyond losing a tenner. However, for a small minority, gambling can become a serious addiction with the power to destroy lives. 

In the UK, it’s estimated that around 350,000 people suffer from an addiction to gambling – recently classified as a disorder in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) – and those numbers are growing.

Last week the Guardian hosted a debate in collaboration with Discuss, where two expert speakers debated whether or not gambling is now out of control. Here’s what they thought:

If members of the audience were in any doubt about the potential for gambling to cause harm, few remained unconvinced after hearing the first speaker, Paul Buck, recount his personal story. Buck who is the founder of EPIC, a problem gambling consultancy, began his career in retail shortly after graduating from university.

After becoming a financial services adviser for a bank in 2001, he quickly rose the ranks to forge a successful and lucrative career. “Looking in from the outside you’ve got the perfect career and family going on…the world of Paul Buck looked quite good from afar.”

Yet unbeknownst to his friends and family, Buck had a pathological gambling disorder; between 2003 and 2011 he lost a staggering £1.3million. “I was getting up at 2am and putting £40,000 on Brazilian football matches…that’s how far the addiction had gone,” he explained.

Buck remained in denial about his problem until 2011, when he came across a newspaper article which discussed gambling addiction. The article described his condition perfectly, and the magnitude of his addiction suddenly hit him. Shortly after his epiphany, he went into work and attempted suicide: 

“We held a meeting in the morning and that lunchtime, something took over me…I went to the top of building and I tried to hang myself with my tie. That’s how low it got. That’s how serious a problem gambling can be.”

Buck was prosecuted and served two years in prison for swindling money from the bank he worked for to fund his gambling problem. His story may sound extreme, yet he insists it is not as rare as people might think. In 2010 a national survey concluded there were 3.5million people at risk of developing a gambling addiction in the UK.

“If there were 3.5 million at risk of becoming addicted in 2010, and since then we’ve had 1400% more TV adverts, loads and loads of sport affiliation, greater number of betting shops…it is realistic to think that none of those people who were at risk didn’t become gambling addicts?” he asked.

Wanda Goldwag, chair of the self-regulatory body Senet Group which promotes responsible gambling standards, began by stressing that she did not wish to deny gambling has become a serious problem for a minority of people. However, she argued that to say gambling is out of control is misleading since the vast majority of people are still able to enjoy the odd flutter without developing a problem:

“93% of people are OK and that’s the issue for me. So I don’t think gambling is out of control, I think there are some challenges and they need to be addressed…there is a certain number of people for whom this becomes a disaster and the industry has got to take that very, very seriously.”

Goldwag insisted that the gambling industry is already trying to resolve the problems faced by a significant minority. To illustrate her point she outlined Senet’s three broad strategies to attempt to regulate and improve company behaviour:

“We’re trying to make the industry socially responsible, we are creating codes of behaviour and we’re also trying to help the government and regulators get this right. I actually think it’s in the long term interests of everybody - including people who work in gambling companies to take this seriously and get social responsibility right.”

But what might this mean in practical terms? Goldwag said she was particularly concerned about young people being exposed to large numbers of intense betting adverts. In response the Senet Group convinced gambling companies to sign up voluntarily to a policy of removing pre-watershed adverts for types of betting which might be particularly problematic, such as ‘free betting.’

“What that means is that companies who are members of the Senet Group volunteered to not do some advertising which all of their rivals were doing and they did that at quite a large commercial loss. But they did it because they absolutely understood that you don’t want children seeing these very high intense adverts before the 9pm watershed.”

However, one member of the audience suggested these measures might be inadequate and that gambling has become normalised as part of youth culture. 

“What’s interesting listening to my son and his friends talk, at that age I didn’t talk about gambling - nobody did. Why do people of 11-15 talk about bets and odds and spread bets and all these things I still don’t understand?”

Goldwag conceded that the industry faces numerous challenges in facing up to changes in technology which mean betting sites are easily available to young people online.

“I’m worried about online more than anything else. If it’s two in the morning and you’re on your own, absolutely nobody is controlling you. That’s why the next set of campaigns we’re doing are centred around online.”

Despite her best efforts, however, Goldwag’s attempts to persuade the audience that the betting industry is doing enough to regulate its own behaviour fell short. A poll at the end of the debate found the majority of the audience were convinced by the force of Buck’s personal account, with over 50% voting in favour of the motion: gambling is out of control. 

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