Friday 24 January 2020

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'We must tackle gambling sites that profit from pain'

'Do not underestimate the monster of big gambling'
'Do not underestimate the monster of big gambling'
'My sister never disciplines her two kids. We are all spending Christmas together - Christmas Eve, Day and Stephen's Day, and I know it will be ruined. Can you help?'
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

So the National Lottery is holding a Lotto draw this Christmas Day for the first time ever. In previous years if a draw fell on the 25th, it was always moved, but those days apparently are over.

This could be viewed as the further encroachment of secularism here in Ireland or, indeed, as evidence of the increased commercialisation of a day once viewed as sacrosanct, religious holiday and ring-fenced family time. Or it could be viewed as further evidence of the unfettered expansion of the scourge of big gambling running amok in this country. And I consider it the latter.

Don't get me wrong, the National Lottery isn't the worst. Most people don't lose their shirts over a few ''Quick Picks''. Although sales of the National Lottery do generate a pretty penny - increasing for the fourth year in a row to €805m this year - despite the chances of winning the jackpot being less than one in eight million. But make no mistake, gambling is an expanding business here and many lives are being ruined because our Government is failing to act to protect those who are affected by this destructive addiction. The CEO of Bet365's current, annual salary is almost €380m - a reflection of its healthy balance sheet. I shudder to think of the misery behind generating that kind of money.

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I view big gambling in much the same way I view big alcohol or big tobacco. They cannot be banned in a Nanny State way - people don't want that and many of us enjoy alcohol and gambling without a problem, although the same cannot be said of tobacco.

But equally, such a significant proportion of people do have problems with them that they need to be subject to restrictions to ensure harm reduction.

Alcohol has prescribed opening hours for pubs and off-licences. But there are no such restrictions around opening hours for gambling. Gone are the days when those who wanted to put some money on a horse went to the local bookies, which closed at six and wasn't open seven days a week. Now you can gamble 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Often on races that aren't even taking place. They are virtual - generated by an algorithm on a website. No form. No skill. Just providing an outlet for a compulsion that is ruining countless lives.

There are controls around the advertising and promotion of alcohol, too. But we are constantly bombarded with ads for how and where we can put on a bet. ''Free first bet'' promotions and all-too-easily-opened online betting accounts already primed with a positive balance are designed to recruit the new gambler or lure back the one trying to kick the habit. Big gambling is encouraging, nay, coercing people into spending more money than they mean to and creating a gambling dependency. It is practically the business model.

And do not underestimate the monster that is big gambling. I know many people who find themselves in front of a betting screen at three or four in the morning having intended to go online briefly at 9.30pm the night before. I know people on moderate incomes who have lost €10,000 in a single night. I know a man who lost the family home - then went into rehab and rebuilt his life, only to lose it a second time along with his family who could take no more; such is the addictive pull of problem gambling. And who is crying halt?

The Government going after bingo was like going after drinkers who have the occasional sherry. But not going after online gambling is like not going after a group that delivers 70pc proof booze to the homes of alcoholics 24 hours a day, for free.

So what should we do?

Well for starters we should tax the hell out gambling in the same way we do tobacco. And use that money for our public health budget.

We should ban all advertising and promotion of it - if you do gamble, you have to go looking for it - it doesn't come looking for you. And we should put restrictions on its opening hours. Companies that operate websites that are accessible here should be subject to dormant periods that might give those who are hooked or struggling a break from the lure of that next bet that might get them out of the hole they are digging for themselves.

Countries around the world have imposed restrictions - often on quite innocent websites, for autocratic reasons. There is no reason why restrictions couldn't be imposed for reasons of public health. No one gambles at four in the morning on a virtual race without there being an issue. No one betting more than they can afford wants to be doing that. Yet stopping isn't easy. Gambling addiction is said to be one of the hardest of all addictions to beat.

Having a Lotto draw on Christmas Day is not that big a deal, but to me it seems we are moving increasingly towards a ''no-holds-barred'' attitude towards gambling. The betting industry would tell us that the number of people struggling with problem gambling is small. Simply put, I don't believe them. We need to regulate and regulate fast. And all forms of promotion should be banned immediately.

@ciarkellydoc

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