By – Håvard Ruud
Poor and ancient management of the gambling industry wrecks tens of thousands of lives in Ireland each year.
International figures suggest that approximately one per cent of the world’s population are addicted to gambling to such an extent that it is harmful for them. The Irish Institute of Public Health does not have any prevalence data for problem gambling for the Republic, but makes suggest that 40.000 people suffers from gambling disorder, based on figures from similar countries.
A man who calls himself Paul tells his story as a compulsive gambler on Gamblers Anonymous’ website. He tells he never was into sports as a kid, but grew an interest for poker and card games as he reached his teenage years. The amounts were small when he first started playing on the poker machines, but as his interest in playing pool and poker with his friends slowly disappeared, Paul got more and more attracted to the machines “blinking and making noises in the dark corner of the venue”. Quickly it went from playing every now and then to everyday. If he didn’t have the money to play himself, he would watch others play. Looking back, he can see the addiction taking hold, Paul says.
The gambling started wearing out his finances, and as he puts it himself, he started putting on the poor face on quite a lot. He started taking money from his employer, borrowing money from his friends without paying them back. At the age of 17 Paul moved to London to work in pub, there he discovered the fruit machines, and it did not take long before the same behaviour repeated itself. His girlfriend at the time had grown tired of London and wanted to move her home town, Clare, in western Ireland. They scraped together the money they could, and were ready to start a new life in Ireland. While his girlfriend was asleep on the ferry, Paul gambled away all their money on the pontoon table on the boat.
His girlfriend at the time had grown tired of London and wanted to move her home town, Clare, in western Ireland. They scraped together the money they could, and were ready to start a new life in Ireland. While his girlfriend was asleep on the ferry, Paul gambled away all their money on the pontoon table on the boat.
Their relationship was dominated by fighting and arguments after coming to Clare. Paul blamed his girlfriend for starting the fights and for making him move to this “stupid” place. “This gives you an idea of the person I was turning into; selfish, jealous, dishonest, manipulative, controlling and full of insecurities”, Paul says. After ending the relationship, he ran back to Dublin and ended up playing on the poker machines again. His gambling disorder became worse. He started playing on horses, dog races, golf and football in addition to the poker machines.
He started losing contact with his family, debts were piling up, and his mind was constantly obsessed with gambling. When spending time with his son, Paul brought him to the bookies. Slowly he started to realise that he had lost complete control of his gambling and that it was destroying both him and his life. He seeked help, and found it in Gamblers Anonymous. Here he met other members with similar stories he could identify with, and started the long way to recovery.
“Things today are a long way away from where I was when I was gambling. A brightness has came back into my life since coming to GA. I am learning to forgive myself, I believe in myself, I remain very vigilant when it comes to my addiction and careful not to slip back into my old behaviours, and negative ways of thinking. I have a balance in my life today”, Paul says.
Economics professor David Forrest at the University of Liverpool has published more than fifty papers about economics of sports and gambling sector. He is a member of the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board and advises the UK Government on gambling regulation and problem gambling issues. Forrest recognises the patterns in Paul’s story gambling habits, and says this is not unusual for people who suffers from gambling disorder.
“The most obvious clue to someone having gambling disorder, I would say, that it was the breadth of engagement in gambling activities. Nearly all problem gamblers do nearly every activity. So you might say there is someone gambling on machines, but if they got a problem, you will find that in the large majority of cases, they are also betting, they are also going to the casino, they will be playing the lottery. A Finnish study, classified these people as omnivores; people who eat everything”, says Forrest.
Forrest is not surprised Paul spent much time and money on fruit machines during his period in London. These machines are more or less designed to make the players lose control over their gambling, according to the professor.
“The sorts of gambling games where lack of control is most evident are those which are fast paced, and which allow you to play again straight away. The very fast pace that you can play means that you perhaps do not make as much pause for thought as would be needed for good decision taking. Of course the machine manufacturers would also make sure that you get into this state of irrational excitement where you take poor decision by having features on the machine to make you excited. For example, visual stimuli like flashing lights and sounds”, says Forrest.
Past the threshold
Different screenings with a mixture of questions are used to determine whether or not a person suffers from gambling disorder. Some of the questions deal with behavioural things like whether the player continues to play after losing a bet, other question asks about consequences of gambling. E.g. if the player has borrowed money to gamble, or has lost a relationship because of his or her gambling habits.
The answers given to these questions determines if the examined is above or below the threshold score required to be classified as having gambling disorder. The figures varies depending on where in the world one looks, but according to Forrest the figure is about one per cent across Europe, and slightly higher in North America and Australia.
“It is a bigger bigger percentage in the participants in gambling. But since most adults gamble, it is not much bigger. If you count up all the people who only need one more point to be classified problem gamblers, you have about three times as many. So it would seem to be a much more widespread problem if you just slightly lowered the threshold for diagnosis.”, Forrest says.
Professor Forrest is not sure how effective and successful groups like Gamblers Anonymous are, because they are just that, anonymous.
“We do not know much about them in a scientific sense since they tend to be closed groups, they do not invite in outsiders to assess them and to evaluate them. They operate in closed worlds so I do not think we can say, from a scientific point of view, whether they are successful or not”, says Forrest.
“But we do know from surveys that a challenge in the area of gambling disorder is that in every country, only a small minority of people who experience problem with their gambling in fact seek help. They do not call helplines, or speak to their doctor, or whatever”, he adds.
Paul’s story is not unique. All of the personal stories from members of Gamblers Anonymous involves great suffering both economically, emotionally and mentally. The Irish Times quotes a recent survey of the UK gambling industry done by Mark Griffiths, Jim Orford and Heather Wadle, who found that “30-35 per cent of the industry’s revenue comes from full-blown problem gamblers”. Similar figures were found for Australia, according to The Irish Times.
Gambling disorder does not always occur alone. Abuse of alcohol or drugs are frequent among problem gamblers, according to professor Forrest.
“Comorbidity [presence of two chronic diseases] is a very frequent thing. For example, of problem gamblers in treatment, more than half also test positive for alcohol disorder. One would suggest that maybe there is something wrong with people’s self control mechanisms that gives them this recklessness”, says Forrest.
Professor Forrest does not necessarily think gambling disorder is worse than other disorders of similar kinds.
“I would say that gambling disorder, in terms of a social problem, does not rank with alcohol disorder. Because first of all, it can not cause such serious physical consequences. And second, it does not affect strangers. No one will attack you in the streets because they have been gambling heavily”, Forrest remarks.
The wellbeing of compulsive gamblers is heavily affected by their disorder, nevertheless. In the British Gambling Prevalance Survey 2010, a question on how happy the respondents were on a scale from 1 to 10 was added, and the results were rather gloomy. According to a study done by Forrest, more than 47 per cent of problem gamblers find themselves in the lowest 15 per cent of happiness scores. Problem gamblers appear to be three times as likely to be “very unhappy” as compared to the general public, states the study.
“It turned out that people who tested positive on the gambling screens in the survey had a disastrous level of happiness, the sorts of levels you get from cancer patients. Although gambling disorder does not kill people directly through physical damage to the body, it does seem to wreck lives quite badly”, Forrest says.
All the stress related to financial problems is the main part of the damages compulsive gambling causes, according to professor Forrest.
“Generally speaking, if you are a heavy drinker or a heavy smoker, which are physically risky activities, there is still a limit to how much money you spend. It is a physical limit. Whereas with gambling, there is no limit, because you can add as many zeros as you want to your stake. So people whose gambling is out of control can get into complete financial failure very quickly. Now, this causes the break up of families, sometimes it leads to crime, fraud like stealing from your employer because you got into debt. Sometimes, indeed it leads to suicide”.
Tracking the players
The situation is quite different in Norway. The Nordic country operates with a state monopoly on gambling and horse racing. It’s not illegal for Norwegians to gamble through foreign, unregulated betting companies, but only the two state regulated companies, Norsk Tipping and Norsk Rikstoto, is allowed to run advertisements in Norwegian media. All the profit made by Norsk Tipping is put into socially beneficial purposes, like building football fields or building and running culture centers.
The much stricter regulation does not mean Norway does not have problem gamblers, but it’s not as severe as Ireland’s situation. With a population of about 5,000,000 people, comparable to the population of Ireland of 4,600,000, Norway has some 20,000 people who are classified as problem gamblers according to the Norwegian Gambling Authority (TGA). TGA estimates that 480,000 Norwegian adults placed participated in digital gambling in 2013, with two thirds of them claiming to only bet through Norsk Tipping. Bets worth roughly €5 million was placed on the legal Norwegian in 2013, mere ten per cent of what Aiséiri, a network of addiction treatment-centers in Ireland, states the Irishmen and women gamble for yearly.
All the profit made by Norsk Tipping is put into socially beneficial purposes, like building football fields or building and running culture centers.
To gamble on games provided by Norsk Tipping, all players needs a personal player card that identifies them and tracks their activity, including slot machines that were banned and replaced by electronic gambling machines between 2007-2009. David Forrest believes this can be a solution to prevent gambling disorder to develop with many.
“If you make them [gamblers] do every gambling activity on the same card, you can write some algorithms to pick up people who are doing just that. And then you can try to intervene. Because a lot more gambling now is electronic, it lends itself to the recording of activity, and maybe you can identify patterns of behaviour that are characteristic of people getting into trouble”, says Forrest.
Back in Ireland, the gambling industry is largely regulated by legislation dating from 1931 and 1956. The Department of Justice and Law Reform published a document called “Options for Regulating Gambling” in December 2010. The document states “No-one would doubt that our existing Gaming and Lotteries Act, 1956 and our Betting Act, 1931 – the principal foundation stones of our gambling legislation – require significant overhaul”. Yet the fundamental principles of the Betting Act 1931 was not significantly changed in terms of the licensing process regarding betting.
The document also calls for protection of “vulnerable” persons. It demands the all licence holders would be obliged to take action to assist players whom they suspect may have a problem. Failure to implement self exclusion procedures would result in the gambling operator being fined or temporarily losing his or her license.
The Department of Justice also wrote in the document: “It can be acknowledged from the start, that for some, the pairing of the words “responsible” and “gambling” is incongruous”. The Irish Responsible Gambling Board formed ‘Gamble Aware’ late in 2011, but the organisation has gone more or less silent, sharing articles about gambling to their 34 followers on Facebook every now and then. Their telephone helpline is active however.
Things are generally the same as they were when former Minister of Justice, Mr Dermot Ahern, published his paper in 2010. However, David Forrest does not necessarily think stricter regulation is the way to go to cope with gambling disorder. He argues that the gambling rate in America was as high 30-40 years ago as they are now, even though America used to prohibit gambling outside of Nevada at that point. Gambling rates are similar to the figures of 1990 in the UK, and the last ten years they have been falling in Austraila, according to Forrest.
“All these sorts of figures make me a little sceptical over whether gambling availability is the key issue. I do not think regulation needs to be stricter in the direction of prohibition. And if you prohibit, people will make their own gambling anyway”, Forrest says.
“Now, that is not to say that there are not some other form, some other level of regulation which are relevant. You can have for example regulation to protect the player from not being given inducements to gamble. Some operators in some jurisdictions with poor regulations, the gamblers are fooled into carrying on playing. You can have a free bet if you bet this extra amount, and that can lead to a spiral of too much spending in one session and no money left for food. So maybe regulation does its best work trying to prevent abuse, rather than trying to stop people from doing things”, Forrest adds.
If you would like to contact Gamble Aware – National Gambling Helpline –
1800 753 753