A third of a million people in the UK are considered 'problem' or 'disordered' gamblers and it is estimated that for every problem gambler, six other people are harmed by their addiction. Éamonn Toland outlines what needs to be done, and how we can make the gambling industry kinder and support those most at risk of addiction.

In the spring of 1968, my father was bartending in Dublin Airport when he got a tip that came straight from the horse's mouth: after helping a trainer to reduce his baggage fees, he was told that Sir Ivor was going to win the Epsom Derby. My parents used their winnings to buy my then 8-year-old sister a piano. She went on to become a music teacher.

I was not born when Sir Ivor won the Derby. Our parents were so fearful of problem gambling that they did not tell any of us the provenance of our piano until I became the Head of Telephone Betting for Paddy Power. I was a year older than my father had been when he got the tip. He had a genuine love of horse racing, but he had seen too much of the dark side of human nature to share his passion with us. As with alcohol, millions of people enjoy a flutter, but for some it leads only to isolation and addiction.

Consumer trust in gambling continues to decline. When the UK Gambling Act was passed in 2005, £686 million was lost by gamblers online, according to h2gc. In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, losses rose to £8.3 billion, an increase of more than 25% on 2019. The majority of gamblers lose less than £2 a day, but the UK Gambling Commission estimates that roughly 340,000 are problem gamblers, about 1.4% of the 25 million people who placed some form of bet in 2019.

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Public concern has been fueled by perceptions of foot-dragging in dealing with addiction issues. William Hill closed 700 of their 2200 shops after the maximum bet on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, described as the 'crack cocaine' of wagering, was reduced from £100 to £2 in 2018, but this followed years of public outcry and very little action within the industry, which could have introduced technology in shops to track play by individuals long before the government was forced to respond.

Although the UK has one of the most mature online gambling markets in the world, it was only in 2019 that the Gambling Commission mandated that credit cards could not be used to fund accounts, and that all operators had to participate in a central self-exclusion scheme called Gamstop. Prior to the launch of Gamstop in 2018, a problem gambler could close an online betting account with one operator and open up a new account elsewhere five minutes later. Young men are especially vulnerable. Strict rules prevent gambling firms from using actors who look younger than 25 in their advertising, but teen players for half the clubs in the Premier League still have gambling logos emblazoned across their shirts.

As online gambling soars, there have been calls for mandatory limits on wagering, but financial loss is just the tip of the iceberg. The young men who are most at risk lack the disposable income of older gamblers, who typically lose three times as much each year. Problem gamblers isolate themselves from friends and family, losing track of time and gambling for longer than they intend to, according to the UK charity Gamcare. Their mental health deteriorates with feelings of restlessness, irritability, and remorse.

To identify the most vulnerable, the industry badly needs an accurate picture of the losses and online behaviour of problem gamblers, broken out by age group. The UK Gambling Commission has asked operators to identify at-risk players, but the vast majority of problem gamblers have more than one online gambling account. The only entity that could surmount data protection concerns to analyse the behaviour of problem gamblers across all of their online accounts is the Gambling Commission itself.

This cannot happen without proper investment, funded by the industry. The UK Gambling Commission has less than 350 staff to regulate 2,652 operators that turn over tens of billions of pounds. The £38 million it spent on operating costs in 2020 came to just over a quarter of one percent of the gross profits earned within the industry. Gambling companies provide entertainment to millions of people, but they have a responsibility to the most vulnerable. It's high time that problem gambling was taken seriously.

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