The ultimate sadness of any addiction is death from self-abuse or suicide. So how serious is the situation? The answer is we simply do not know. The only statistics available suggest somewhere between 250 and 650 suicides annually. Imagine if we were equally vague about how many people died of cancer. We must know more.
This is now urgent because of the size of the problem, with over 55,000 young people under the age of 14 already addicted, alongside 430,000 adults ‘with a serious gambling issue’ i.e. addicted and 2 million ‘at risk’. What should government, regulators and civil society do?
We need to know how people can rack up massive debts without gambling companies, banks or regulators being able to prevent it. How easy is it for gamblers to self-exclude comprehensively? How can credit be cut off?
These questions need answers and my recent parliamentary debate made five key recommendations:
1. We need the gambling sector to fund more and thorough research by paying a levy of company gross profits. The industry’s gross profits of £14 billion and tax receipts of £3 billion, 100,000 employees and £200 million of advertising revenues give an idea of the volume of gambling. A levy could therefore generate significant revenue to fund a major independent research initiative, and more gambling clinics, like the new one in London and soon Leeds.
2. More action to protect the young from gambling advertising. That means eliminating gambling advertising on live sports programmes. More than 90 minutes of betting adverts were shown during the football World Cup. I believe some gambling businesses have made a start, and the Gambling Commission should ban gambling advertising during live sport altogether.
3. We should build on stronger self-exclusion with real commitments from banks. Some gamblers go to great lengths to get around self-exclusion blockages, and gambling companies are at least guilty by default for allowing this. I fully endorse the Commission’s aim to work with banks and other credit providers to improve protection for problem gamblers.
4. We must embrace technology to protect more people. Using software like Gamban for blocking gambling sites can help with self-exclusion. It should be mandatory for all gambling companies to have such systems. There are other tools which could be developed to help protect the young like facial recognition to block underage gambling more effectively.
5. We need more Gambling Clinics. The NHS Long Term Plan mentions mental health issues associated with gambling, which is a big step forward. But the solitary existing Gambling Clinic in London is not enough to do the work needed across the country.
The Gambling Commission is soon to launch their National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms. Meanwhile, I have a Ten-Minute Rule Bill coming soon, urging the government to report on the possibility of a levy. If actioned, it would be an important step to improve our understanding of a problem much greater than most recognise. Regulators cannot do it all alone. Society will have to consider whether gambling will be the tobacco of this generation - something once widely advertised, then restricted and now banned from advertising altogether. Parliament and government should take the first step of a new gambling levy to speed up work on both prevention and cure. This problem is not going to disappear magically, and we need action now.