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'We've reached a point of no return - it's an epidemic': Problem gambling fears raised as bookie revenues soar

Long-awaited gambling regulations are due to be introduced later in the year.

GIVING EVIDENCE TO a British House of Lords select committee in February 2020 on efforts to reduce problem gambling, the then-CEO of the company which owns brands such as Coral and Ladbrokes had a telling statement.  

“We do affordability checks [on VIP or high-value customers],” Kenny Alexander said. “We ask for their payslips and—as much as we can—sources of their wealth, et cetera, to verify that they have the money to spend.

I am not going to sugar-coat it: 99% of the customers who play on our sites will lose, so you’re probably losing more if you play more.

This admission from a betting firm CEO was later clarified to say he had used this 99% figure for illustrative purposes and isn’t a statistical figure that represents the actual percentage of bettors that incur losses.

Nonetheless, it is hard to argue that 2020 wasn’t a good year for some of the bookies. Even with retail outlets closed for large swathes of the year due to the pandemic.

This week, Paddy Power’s parent company Flutter announced that revenues had soared by 106% to £4.4 billion last year as online betting rose significantly. 

The company said that it had 7.6 million people gambling on its platforms a month, and was recording strong growth in the US. 

Flutter’s chief executive Peter Jackson was clear that the trend towards online gambling would continue to be a priority going forward.

He told reporters: “I think there’s definitely going to be a change in people’s shopping habits as a result of this pandemic and I think we’ve seen a real acceleration towards online away from retail.”

However, at a time when we’re living through extended periods of lockdown restrictions, advocates have said there’s an urgent need to address problem gambling which they say is being fuelled by betting online. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie this week on behalf of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, consultant addictions psychiatrist Professor Colin O’Gara said that issue of problem gambling has “reached a point of no return”. 

“There has to be something done about this, and soon,” he said. “We’re really starting to see the effects of the pandemic.”

The first component of this, according to Professor O’Gara, is for those who have successfully managed to stop gambling who now risk relapse. 

“People may have had a nice repertoire of activities all upended,” he said. “Maybe they’re unable to attend mutual support meetings, or go the gym, or more recently meet with people, whatever the case may be. It’s kind of created a laboratory-condition for relapse.

Very early on [in the pandemic] sports dropped off, and there was a move towards online casino suites and online slots. Profit figures would suggest that the bookmakers have done well during Covid. The boredom factor for a lot of people is huge, and the isolation factor is huge and these are central tenets of addiction.
Last year, we had the virtual Grand National [a computer-generated version of the race]. And this was a widescale introduction to people for virtual betting and virtual racing. It was presented as a charity thing for the NHS in Britain. It’s that PR machine and the sophistication of the gambling products always working away in the background. 

He said the return of sport and its wall-to-wall coverage on TV at a time when many social activities aren’t possible is pushing more and more to betting online. 

“It’s my sense within young men that it’s an epidemic of sorts,” he said. “It’s out of control, there’s no other way to describe it.”

Long-delayed legislation that would regulate the gambling industry and introduce a dedicated gambling regulator may now come into effect before the end of the year. 

Gambling companies have said they would welcome regulation, and have taken some pre-emptive steps towards safer gambling measures. 

Last month, for example, Flutter said it would bring in a ban on credit card betting, increase investment in research, education and treatment to the tune of €3 million and bring in advertisement ban during sports coverage on TV. 

Flutter said these latest efforts would complement other measures it was taking to ensure customers in Ireland are offered a safe environment to gamble even before any regulator is in place. 

Professor O’Gara, however, said that it’s been absolutely clear over the last decade that self-regulation “doesn’t work”. 

“Although [gambling companies] say they want regulation, the reality is that would eventually mean the cohort of individuals who gamble problematically might not be there anymore,” he said.

“That’s the core issue. If you protect vulnerable people, you’ll take a substantial turnover from companies.”

Gambling companies in the past have disputed claims that substantial parts of their revenue and profits come from problem gamblers. 

Eoin Coyne’s story

Eoin Coyne, from Youghal in Cork, is in his early 30s. He was due to get married last May but postponed it due to the pandemic. He eventually tied the knot in September and lives in Cork with his wife and children. 

He hasn’t had a bet since January 2014. 

The first bet he can remember is a tenner on Frank Lampard to score first for England. Lampard scored, netting him €100. Eoin was just 14.

“It kept creeping into my life as such from there,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“That first bet drew me in. I later got a part-time job at the greyhound track. I was obviously in school doing the Leaving Cert then but I’d take half days if there was something like Cheltenham on. Then when I left school, I went to college I got a part-time job in the bookies.

“All my friends were into sport, so it was definitely a social thing. Looking back now I can see more clearly. When Cheltenham was over, say, my friends would go on and continue with their day. Whereas for me, I was waiting for the evening racing in Wolverhampton to start or betting on midweek matches in the Championship.”

As he got older, gambling became a larger part of Eoin’s life. At age 18, he wouldn’t go to the bookies every day. He didn’t think about gambling every day. But it had begun to make inroads.

He was spending more and more time in the William Hill on the College Road in Cork. More time there than on his studies, and he eventually dropped out. 

At the time, he didn’t see it as a problem. His part-time job was in a bookies. Eoin believed that he was dealing with the problem gamblers on the other side of the counter. 

“I saw people bet on virtual racing from 10am until closing time at night,” he said. “They were betting on virtual roulette, everything. They were spending a lot more time than I was. 

That’s how I rationalised what I was doing. I was still seeing my mates and going out at the weekend. I was looking at others, and saying they were the ones with the problem. 

Even if he wasn’t in a position to admit it, yet, he was exhibiting behaviours that can be common for a lot of problem gamblers.

“I kind of glamourised my wins, and tried to minimise the losses,” he said. “If I’d a big win, I’d be telling everybody about it. If I was out on the weekend, I’d be buying shots for all the lads. If I’d lost all my money, I’d turn off my phone and I wouldn’t answer texts. I’d try and hide away from it.”

Eoin managed to have a seven-month hiatus from gambling beginning in late-2011. He started betting again on the day of the Grand National race in 2012 when other colleagues were putting a few quid on a horse. “I fell into it there again,” he said.

By that time, he was planning on moving to London and was trying to save up as much as he could for the move. But he was still gambling all the time. 

When he eventually made the move heading into 2013, he got a job at the same bookies over in London. A moment that he says was a “turning point” is when he was held up at gunpoint by armed robbers in the shop. He gave up working in the bookies after that but found himself spending more and more time in them during his free time. 

“I used gambling as a way of coping [after the experience of the robbery],” he said. “I was thinking about it all the time. Before I went to bed, in the shower.

“How much money I had to bet. Everything focused with how I was going to gamble. It became a daily occurrence from May 2013 onwards. It was out of control.”

Eoin began to borrow money off family members and friends. He’d bet all of his money if he had £10 in his pocket or if he had £100. Football, horse racing, greyhounds. He would constantly place bets to chase what he’d lost.

“I’d give ridiculous excuses as to why I needed the money,” he said. “I’d told my girlfriend I’d stopped but I kept gambling.

Two weeks from payday, I had £1 left. I’d no savings and no money in my bank account. I’d exhausted all my avenues. I went into a Paddy Power on the Seven Sisters Road and I bet £1 on this outrageous soccer accumulator. Something like 5000/1. I got the docket back and just threw it in the bin. It was a lightbulb moment. I was thinking I just cannot put myself through this torture anymore. It was torture for seven-eight months. It consumed so much of my head… I realised what I was doing. The best way of saying it is that I wasn’t the person I thought I wanted to be. That’s when it came to a head.

Eoin went and sought help with a UK-based charity called Gamcare, and began one-on-one therapy with an addiction counsellor. It helped him to get back on track. The support from a welfare officer at a GAA club he played for in London was also a massive help.

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Moving home with his young family helped too.

He still attends therapy sessions regularly. But hasn’t bet since. 

Eoin Coyne didn’t lose millions or tens of thousands of euro on gambling. But at a young age, he was betting everything he had. 

“The thing about the industry is that all the slogans are about it being fun and entertainment,” he said.

“They have that slogan When The Fun Stops Stops,” he said, referencing a slogan that appears on many adverts from bookmakers and in a small section on their advertising branding. “Imagine telling a heroin addict, or a smoker, or an alcoholic, when the fun stops stop. It’s an addiction. 

I have a problem with the narrative that it’s harmless. For a lot of people it is. But if it’s that easy, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I wasn’t losing millions. But I was betting everything. So many are in the position I was in. Our attitude needs to change around the culture of gambling. It can’t be so normalised that you have to have a bet if you’re sitting watching a match with friends.
They’ve turned soccer matches into a casino. You can bet on who’ll have the next corner or the next throw in. Pure flip of a coin stuff. Red or black. It’s not a normal bet. They know exactly how to extract money from people. It’s like basically having a casino in your pocket.

Eoin added that he would like to see greater regulation of the industry, and backed Labour Senator Mark Wall’s proposal to ban gambling advertisements. 

He also wrote a poem about his experiences that he said has resonated with others in the same position he was in, which you can see below.

Source: Seanachai Sessions/YouTube

Regulation

The kind of regulation that would bring gambling laws in Ireland into the 21st Century could set to be finally forthcoming from the government this year. 

Ireland is almost two decades behind the UK in the set up of a gambling regulator, and there are no official studies that accurately estimate the scale of the problem in Ireland. 

Figures in Northern Ireland have suggested that 2.3% of the population are problem gamblers. If that figure was replicated here, it would mean at least 100,000 people in Ireland are problem gamblers. 

Last last year, the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland published a position paper calling for urgent regulation, research and treatments in Ireland in this area. 

Professor O’Gara, who was the lead author of that paper, said a recent meeting with Junior Minister James Browne filled with him hope that the government will move on the area of regulation before the end of the year. Having said, he’s also aware that heavy lobbying could also be done in the meantime on the matter. 

“There is a lot being planned,” he said. “I’m hopeful and relatively confident. I do believe [Browne] is determined to get an office for gambling control in by the autumn.

I think things can move quickly, if we can get a basic framework in place. The next thing is to properly levy the industry so that funds come through. That can be used for [support] services and research. Very quickly, then, you might see data coming through that’ll help us to tackle this. 

In the wake of the pandemic, Dr O’Gara said it’ll be very important to tackle the “epidemic” of problem gambling that is affecting Irish society, particularly its young men. 

“A lot of people are being harmed,” he said. “It’s a stigma and one of the worst stigmas out there. It’s such a shame. Because it’s a medical illness like any others. A huge amount of funding needs to go towards education, and towards awareness. 

“When somebody falls foul of this, it’s not their fault. They need to understand that. We need to ensure they get the help they need.”

If you need help with gambling addiction, get in touch with Gamblers Anonymous via one of their regional contacts, Problem Gambling Ireland on 089 241 5401 or other services listed here.

For those in need of mental health support, help is available via:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

A list of HSE and HSE-funded services can be found here

About the author:

Sean Murray

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