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'In 10 years, we'll ask how we let it get so out of control': Psychiatrists call for urgent action on gambling

A new position paper from the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland has said five measures are needed to tackle this “public health crisis”.

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AN OUTRIGHT BAN on gambling advertisements in sports and dedicated treatment pathways are needed to tackle the “hidden epidemic of gambling addiction in Ireland”.

That’s according to the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland who today launched a position paper on gambling disorder in Ireland for what is described as a “public health crisis”. 

It said that with stalled progress in the regulation of advertising standards for betting outlets and a lack of specialised services, gambling disorder is a matter of crisis within public health which needs to be addressed “sooner rather than later”.

Since 2013, legislation which would reform Ireland’s gambling laws have not been progressed by the government. 

It is not envisaged such legislation will be enacted until the second half of next year at the earliest.

The College of Psychiatrists recommended that this legislation be progressed and that a Gambling Regulatory Authority be established “without delay”. 

It pointed to a lack of research on gambling and gambling disorder in the Irish population and said work must be done to establish the extent of the problem here. The HSE has said in the past its statistics on the matter do not provide a full picture on problem gambling in Ireland.

The College also said a lack of dedicated services for the treatment of gambling disorder within the Irish mental health and/or addiction services is another area that needs to be addressed.

Professor Colin O’Gara, a consultant addictions psychiatrist specialising in the area of gambling addiction and lead author of the paper, said: “We cannot continue to ignore the links between problem gambling and the current high volume of betting ads  – be that in traditional TV ads or on team jerseys and side-line banners. Betting has become strongly linked with the enjoyment of sports.  We are normalising gambling as a behaviour. 

Much like tobacco, in ten years I think we will look back on the proliferation of gambling advertising in sport and entertainment and ask ourselves how we let it get so out of control. Currently gambling advertising in Ireland is much too common and, critically, occurs before the adult television watershed.

The call for action comes in the wake of what it called “concerning figures” on the prevalence of adolescent gambling habits in Ireland from a European-wide survey.

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According to that study, Irish 16-year-olds have higher rates of slot machine use, sports betting and lottery participation than their European counterparts.

Dr William Flannery, president of the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland, said: “The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have been felt harshly by those struggling with problem gambling. Key drivers in the development and relapse of an addiction include loneliness, isolation and boredom – all unfortunate side effects of the necessary social distancing restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the virus since last March.  

Even in the absence of live sports, people are finding it difficult to avoid triggers, with increased visibility of online gambling ads and the rollout of new betting platforms. We need to support people with tighter controls and responsible gambling measures inbuilt in the industry.

The college added that a focused campaign of legislative reform and public education on gambling addiction by the HSE and Department of Health is urgently needed to address the worrying trends in gambling-related harm and stress.

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Sean Murray

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