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'A gambler can lose everything in an instant, destroying countless lives around them in the process'

‘We probably won’t know the impact of online gambling on our society for another ten years’, writes John Halligan.

John Halligan

PROBLEM GAMBLING COMES into the spotlight every few months, typically when a high-profile sports star comes forward with their personal, harrowing story of how their life has been destroyed. Then public interest wanes, until the next sensational story comes along.

But compulsive gambling is an everyday reality that is devastating the physical, emotional and financial health of gamblers and their families in this country and doing huge damage to our communities and our society as a whole. And whilst I do not intend to be flippant about other serious addiction issues, I’ve always felt that an alcoholic can only drink so much in a certain time, but a gambler can lose everything in an instant, destroying countless lives around them in the process.

It’s been estimated that between 0.6% and 2.2% of the Irish population have a gambling problem and frontline workers say those numbers are increasing. Yet there is no dedicated statutory funding for problem gambling services in Ireland.

Our State-funded addiction services are limited and struggling to cope with demand and there is an argument that counsellors need to be upskilled, in order to deal with the complexities brought about by the development of online gambling.

Accessing a treatment centre for people in lower socioeconomic brackets is near impossible. And, as with any addiction, the longer the delay in accessing treatment, the more devastating the consequences.

‘No escaping this addiction’

While the government has a duty to step up to the plate on this, so too should the gambling industry.

Irish betting companies currently pay 1% tax from their gross margin. The tax was extended to online and remote betting in 2015. An increase of betting duty paid by industry from 1% to 2% is not a draconian measure by any stretch of the imagination. Ireland would still have one of the lowest betting tax rates in the world. But such a socially responsible, targeted and progressive move could have a significant impact on the supports available to those addicted to gambling.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way anti-gambling. It is a legitimate entertainment pursuit that many enjoy without difficulties. But when gambling becomes a problem, there needs to be services available and a certain burden of responsibility rests with the industry that makes such huge profits from their sometimes vulnerable customers.

Gambling addicts are confronted with incessant advertising, particularly during major sporting events – the barrage of betting ads during the recent World Cup being a case in point.

President Michael D Higgins recently expressed his own view that gambling platforms should not be advertised through sporting events. But the reality is the ubiquity of smartphones means there is no escaping this addiction, it is 24/ 7 and online gambling has been found to be up to three times as addictive as traditional forms of gambling.

We, as legislators, need to urgently open our eyes to the gravity of this.

‘Increase in problem gambling rates’

There’s no denying broad regulation of the sector is long overdue. There were some extremely worthwhile initiatives in the Gambling Control Bill 2013, such as a gambling regulator whose duties would include the regulation of advertising and sports sponsorship; and the creation of a social fund which would provide much-needed funding for problem gambling treatment, prevention and research through the creation of a levy on gambling industry turnover. However there have been considerable delays with this reform.

I know Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton is committed to tackling the issue and a report on his upcoming reforms is due shortly. But the proposed social fund could take years to properly activate and, in the interim at least, I believe a 1% increase in betting tax could be filtered into dedicated addiction services for problem gamblers.

The Irish Institute for Public Health (IPH) estimated in 2010 that there were between 28,000 and 40,000 problem gamblers in Ireland (based on data from Northern Ireland).

More recent substantiated Irish figures are somewhat limited, compared to the research going on in other jurisdictions. However research in the UK suggests gambling addiction is on the rise and the UK Gambling Commission’s prevalence survey for June 2015 – June 2016 showed a 75% increase in problem gambling rates, while the problem gambling prevalence rate for Northern Ireland is the highest in Europe.

‘They simply cannot stop’

Those working in the services say that many gambling addicts start gambling as teenagers. The Institute for Public Health in Ireland has found that adolescent gambling is two to three times that of adults’, with participation rates for gambling in Ireland highest among the 16-34 age group. No doubt this is compounded by the accessibility of mobile phone betting apps. Yet we have no dedicated service for the prevention of problem gambling among young people in Ireland.

Through my constituency office, I am regularly contacted by the families of gamblers who are desperately seeking help, notably the parents of young men aged from their late teens onwards who are in significant debt because of gambling. The line I hear most frequently from family members is that they ‘simply cannot stop’, and the gambler often ends up slipping into crime to pay off their debt.

Mental health problems are often intertwined with gambling, sometimes leading to alcohol and drug-related issues. Studies have found that one in five problem gamblers attempt suicide, while four in five experience suicidal thoughts. The suicide rate amongst problem gamblers is three-four times that of the general population.

This is not the proverbial ticking time bomb. This reality already exists.

We probably won’t know the impact of online gambling on our society – particularly on our young people – for another ten years. But it is already a significant problem and we need to be proactive in our approach.

The proceeds of a 1% increase on the betting tax would have a significant impact on addiction services and its introduction would be a huge step in the right direction towards compelling the industry to recognise the vulnerability of some of their customers and play their part in ensuring those people receive the help they need.

John Halligan is Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Education and Skills with special responsibility for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development.

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