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'Not drifting towards a gambling crisis, we're in the middle of one': 800 addiction cases treated by HSE

The HSE has admitted its own figures don’t come close to painting a picture of the extent of problem gambling in Ireland.

Image: Shutterstock/welcomia

THERE HAVE BEEN at least around 800 cases in Ireland where people sought help with gambling addiction since 2015, but these official HSE figures have been labelled “the tip of the iceberg”.

The figures were released to Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly, who asked Minister for Health Simon Harris how many people had been treated for gambling addiction since 2015. 

Harris sent O’Reilly’s request to the HSE but the body subsequently admitted its own figures don’t paint an accurate picture of the scale of gambling addiction in Ireland.

The Dublin Fingal TD told TheJournal.ie that the government has refused to engage on methods to try to understand problem gambling in this country, and that we are already in the midst of a crisis that is going largely unnoticed by the government. 

In its reply to O’Reilly, the HSE said that its addiction services have been “traditionally funded to treat problematic drug and alcohol use, some cases of problematic gambling have been provided with treatment”.

‘Optional’ reporting

In supplying the figures, the HSE said that the numbers available related to the number of cases reported to the National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS). 

“Reporting of gambling to the NDTRS is optional,” it said. “Therefore, these figures cannot be considered complete or representative of the treatment for gambling in a national context.”

Nevertheless its figures show that there were 208 cases in 2015, 195 in 2016 and 219 in 2017. These were cases where gambling was designated the “main problem” in those presenting for treatment. 

In all, that’s 622 cases in that three-year period.

The figures aren’t yet finalised for 2018 but, with 60% of all relevant data available, there were 174 cases where patients were treated for a gambling addiction.

So, since 2015, there has been just under 800 cases – at the very least – where people presented with gambling addiction to a service under the auspices of the HSE.

It is more than likely that these figures vastly underestimate the true volume of problem gambling in Ireland, as the HSE noted in its response. 

The issue with the NDTRS is that a form must be completed by each person presenting for treatment related to their drug, alcohol or in this case gambling use.

People also often turn to private providers and charities who offer addiction supports outside the remit of the HSE. 

There is scant data available on the prevalence of problem gambling in Ireland, but research has been done in the UK to try to get a picture of how pervasive the issue is.

In England in 2016, it was estimated that there were around 300,000 problem gamblers, which is under 0.5% of the population.

The picture is far bleaker in Northern Ireland, which estimates that 2.3% of the population is classified as a problem gambler, or around 43,000 people. 

‘Dedicated study’ 

We don’t know what this figure is in Ireland because the dedicated studies on it simply have not been done.

There is some data available on how much Irish punters have lost on gambling, with a study by The Economist in 2017 saying Ireland’s gambling losses totalled €2.1 billion a year, or €470 per adult.

O’Reilly said it was important that this problem was no longer ignored.

She said: “We are not drifting towards a gambling crisis, we are in the middle of one and the government are afraid to look under the bonnet to see how big that crisis is.

We know the data – we have the highest online gambling losses per capita in the world; that fact should scare politicians, but the reality is that it doesn’t.

With the Gambling Control Bill 2013 put forward by the government in the doldrums for quite some time, and a revised bill put forward by Fianna Fáil a year ago this month making slow progress in the Dáil, inaction is continuing from the government in legislating the gambling industry and the issues facing problem gamblers.

The Department of Health does have data on gambling use in Ireland on the way, but that will be based on data from 2014/15.

That will form part of the Drugs Prevalence Survey, which published its first tranche of data in 2016. The government has promised that more fuller data on gambling within our culture from that survey will be published soon.

Sinn Fein’s O’Reilly believes that is not enough and wants the government to be more proactive on the issue.

“I’ve been calling for a dedicated gambling prevalence survey so we can understand the scale of the problem in this State, however, to date the government refuse to engage,” she said. “In fact, they even refuse to run a problem gambling awareness campaign.”

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Sean Murray

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