Problem gambling: Ireland’s neglected addiction
Gambling is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the early beginnings of gambling can be traced back to ancient China around 2300 BC, where tiles unearthed in recent decades were found to have been used as a type of lottery. With gambling embedded in our culture for thousands of years now, it is an everyday part of life for many people, especially for fanatics of sports like football, where, for many, betting is an integral part of the enjoyment of matches.
While many are able to practice gambling responsibly and without detriment, there are also many for whom gambling can quickly turn from a fun hobby to a life-altering addiction. What are the true detriments of gambling, and do we have regulators in place to help put a halt to the ever-growing issue of problem gambling in Ireland?
The “buzz” of the bet
Gambling addiction is caused by the stimulation of the brain’s reward system, much like an addiction to substances, like drugs or alcohol. Addicts become drawn to placing their next bet; reward-seekers find the “buzz” or thrill of the bet an enticing draw-in. This can lead to continually chasing losses, every time with the belief that the next bet will be a win, while in the process losing savings, accumulating debt, with some having to resort to fraud or theft to support their addiction.
Gambling addiction has been likened to drug addiction due to the many similarities regarding reward-seeking – as reported by Scientific American, just as substance addicts require increasingly strong hits to get high, compulsive gamblers pursue ever riskier adventures, as well as both drug addicts and problem gamblers enduring symptoms of withdrawal when separated from the chemical or thrill they desire.
In terms of treatment, this same report by Scientific American found that more than 80 percent of gambling addicts never seek treatment in the first place. This is particularly concerning, as a common issue with gambling addiction is that it is not always clear from an outside perspective when someone is suffering; generally, there are no physical indicators that someone needs help, unlike in the case of addiction to substances such as drugs or alcohol.
This is especially the case with online gambling; because of its convenience and immediate availability, one can place bets online or use gambling apps for the likes of casino or poker without anyone around them being any the wiser. The no-cash aspect of online gambling is also a factor, with it often instilling a sense of invincibility among gamblers; playing online with no actual physical cash can often make it that much more difficult for players to realise exactly how much money they are giving away.
Online gambling on the rise
Although the traditional way of betting appears to be diminishing – Ireland’s 1,365 betting shops in 2008 dropped to 814 in 2020 – online gambling and betting and the digitisation of most bookmakers has skyrocketed gambling in Ireland, with the likes of Paddy Power stating that 77 percent of their profits now come from the online side of the industry. There are currently an estimated 40,000 problem gamblers in Ireland, but with online gambling on the rise, there is a growing risk of problem gambling increasing, especially among young people.
In Ireland in particular, nine in every 10 people reported by the HSE as being treated for a gambling addiction from 2015 – 2019 were men, with the median age of those seeking treatment in recent years at 35 years old. In 2010, the Irish Institute of Public Health found that adolescent gambling is two to three times greater than for adults, and noted this as a consequence of online gambling. The ease of gambling has never been greater than in the present day, where hundreds of apps and websites are available to bet hundreds of euro on in a matter of seconds.
With sports betting on the rise, young people are more and more at risk of developing dangerous habits. Head of addiction services at St John of God Hospital in Dublin, Professor Colin O’Gara, told the Independent of the dangers of young people accessing gambling sites where “age verification processes are not robust”, as well as the issue of an increased suicide rate among those with gambling addictions – “you are talking in some samples a 25 percent suicide rate or even higher”.
Gambling marketing – preying on the vulnerable?
Last year, researchers in the UK at Ipsos Mori and the University of Stirling found that 96 percent of people aged 11-24 had seen gambling marketing messages in the last month and were more likely to bet as a result. Gambling marketing and advertising has always been a focal point of criticism, especially in football.
This was highlighted as the initial wave of Covid-19 hit Ireland nearly a year ago, when concern was increasingly voiced regarding a potential rise in problem gambling due to a lack of live sport; fast forward ten months and this concern appears to have become a reality. The Extern Problem Gambling Project (formerly Problem Gambling Ireland) saw a 55 percent increase in new visitors to its website in 2020, and since Covid restrictions were put in place, has seen a marked rise in people contacting their helpline service.
For many out of work, stuck at home and struggling to cope with lockdown, online gambling and gaming have become a welcome distraction. Michael Guerin, a senior addiction therapist at Cuan Mhuire, an addiction treatment centre in Co Limerick, told the Irish Examiner last week of the “frightening” increase in problems created by online gambling during the pandemic – “[these companies] have very strategically placed advertisements on all kinds of ways to make quick money […] in recent months, as the lockdown continues, we’ve seen a 50 percent increase in the number of people contacting us for help”.
The relationship between gambling and football, particularly within the English Premier League and its unabating sponsorships by betting companies, is particularly harmful. Three-quarters of Premier League teams have betting sponsors or partners, with that figure rising to 87 percent in the Championship. Football betting has been glorified as an integral part of the sport’s fan culture in recent years, with the rhetoric that as a supporter, one is a more active participant in a match they have a personal stake in.
Just last week, Arsenal came under fire for promoting their official betting partner, Sportsbet.io, on their Twitter feed. Many fans and supporters vocalised their disappointment with the advertisement, with one user tweeting “Gambling is a serious addiction that can ruin lives. Shame on you for promoting this”. Another user further lamented the club’s irresponsibility in promoting the company – “promoting betting firms is bad enough but during a time when people have little or no money or are stuck at home with little to do. Not the greatest of ideas”. The partnership also comes not long after two prominent past Arsenal players, Paul Merson and Nicklas Bendtner, opened up separately about past crippling gambling addictions.
Calls for regulation of sports gambling advertising have been rife in Ireland in recent years, and, last month, the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland released a position paper stating the “major public health concern” the country faces regarding problem gambling. Among calls for better-funded research and education surrounding the issue, they also reiterated the need for an independent regulator of gambling advertisements, which should be aware of “the influence social media advertising can have on children and adolescents”.
The lack of research implemented by the Irish government around problem gambling has proved to be a huge issue in recent years. The Gambling Control Bill was originally published in July 2013, outlining initiatives such as regulation of gambling and a social fund to provide financial support for problem gambling treatment, education, and research. There has yet to be any enactment of the Bill seven and a half years on.
A lack of research around the subject of problem gambling, as well as a lack of resources for those suffering, makes for inaccurate statistics – the HSE has admitted its own figures don’t paint an accurate picture of the scale of gambling addiction in Ireland. The government has this month stated its plans to have a regulator in place by autumn of this year; however, a “significant lag” is expected in terms of how long it will take for legislation to actually take effect.
In terms of resources, the Extern Problem Gambling Service, which runs problemgambling.ie, last week told TheJournal.ie of their concerning lack of funding – the programme has yet to receive any government funding despite its many cries for help to government bodies, and the charity is operating solely off of a philanthropic donation of €150,000 made in 2019. A source close to the programme has also admitted it faces the prospect of closing in the coming months if their calls for funding are not heard.
Problem gambling is a devastating addiction that can break down relationships, create financial losses, and lead to significant mental health issues like depression. The aim of those who advocate for gambling regulators isn’t to stop people gambling altogether, but to encourage responsible gambling.
The ease of accessibility of gambling online is an ever-increasing risk, and with a large amount of addicts suffering in silence for many years, it’s likely that further worrying statistics are yet to come, especially considering Ireland’s current acute lack of resources. Funding for research and providing adequate care and resources for sufferers is vital for this issue to ensure problem gambling can be kept under control, sooner rather than later.
If you or someone you know is affected by any of these issues, help is available. Visit problemgambling.ie for information, or call 0892415401