Gambling addiction: ‘It is everywhere you look, and it is big business’

Problem gambling in Ireland has risen during Covid, the industry remains unregulated

“The walls started to close in around me. Between borrowing money, and telling lies, and getting into financial difficulty, the walls were closing in.”

Niall McNamee (36), who was in his mid-teens when he started going to the bookies on Saturdays to place a few bets on horse racing, is talking about when his gambling addiction began to overwhelm him

Ireland is regularly cited as the third-ranked country in the world in terms of gambling spend per head of adult population

A few early wins had a bad effect.

“It planted a seed, that maybe I could make a few bob on this,” the Offaly county footballer says. “And that was how it started. It just went from being one day a week, to being two days a week, and eventually it was seven days a week; it was 24/7 in terms of the gambling and being on my mind and the worrying and everything that goes with it.”

The GAA player gambled on horse and dog racing rather than football matches, because of the greater speed involved.

“For me to sit through a soccer match for 90 minutes to see the result at the end of it would be pure torture. I needed the bet to happen quickly and the result to come in quickly.”

Because of the money he was losing, and the time he was spending in the bookies, McNamee found himself telling more and more lies.

“If you keep doing it [lying], week in, week out, then whatever bit of goodness is in you, it kind of starts to chip away at it, and it’s just not a nice place to be. Your relationship with yourself becomes a very, very difficult one.”

By 2016 the stress from his secret addiction was making him feel as if the “walls were closing in”.

“Basically I had a conversation with my father and said, ‘look, I’m really struggling with gambling here and I need to get a bit of help’. A couple of days later I saw an addiction counsellor, and about a week and a half later I went into the Rutland Centre in Dublin for the residential programme for about five weeks, and from that day I’ve never really looked back.”

With severe gambling addiction, just as with severe alcohol and drug addiction, a person's ability to care for themselves can collapse

It is eight years since the American Psychiatric Association recognised gambling addiction as a condition that sits alongside alcohol and drug addiction. Up to then it was seen as an impulse control disorder.

Ireland is regularly cited as the third-ranked country in the world in terms of gambling spend per head of adult population, after Australia and Singapore, yet the legislation that regulates gambling in this jurisdiction dates from the 1930s.

The Government recently published the outline of a law to establish a Gambling Regulatory Authority, and the authority is to be “established and operational” by 2023, according to a spokesman for the Department of Justice.

Smartphones

The position of a CEO-designate for the proposed authority is to be advertised shortly, he said. The authority will seek to limit the damage caused by gambling.

With severe gambling addiction, just as with severe alcohol and drug addiction, a person’s ability to care for themselves can collapse, affecting not just their finances and their relationships, but their capacity to care for their health and general wellbeing.

The arrival of the internet, data mining, and the smartphone means that highly-addictive gambling products designed by highly-qualified maths graduates are now just an App away from most people.

“A good proportion of people will gamble and not have a difficulty,” said Colin O’Gara, a clinical professor of psychiatry at University College, Dublin, who treats gambling addiction at St John of God Hospital, in Dublin. Most people gamble, suffer a loss, compute the loss as a negative, and act on that basis.

But a proportion of the population – the size of the proportion, O’Gara said, is “hotly contested” - are susceptible to becoming problem gamblers.

Approximately five per cent of the population are suffering from a serious problem with gambling, and, within that group, 0.7 to one per cent of the population have a severe gambling addiction whereby they are “utterly preoccupied” by their condition, the psychiatrist said.

“Those who cannot control gambling have deficits in the key risk processing areas of the brain where decision-making occurs.”

This can be inherited, or it can be the product of being exposed to a gambling environment, particularly if this occurs at an early age.

“So it is both genetic and environmental. It is an interplay between the genetics and the environment, which is known as gene environment interaction, or epigenetics.” A gambling addiction is “not a deficit of will or a weakness of character”.

Parents wouldn't be aware that their children, four-, five- or six-year-olds, are being exposed to a gambling feature there

O’Gara believes approximately 250,000 people are affected by gambling in ways that lead to financial difficulties, relationship difficulties, neglect of physical health, and other problems.

“If we didn’t have a gambling product, we wouldn’t have to worry about a genetic predisposition because, ultimately, it is the product that is addictive. The product, by its nature, is addictive, as are drugs and alcohol, and more recently, internet video games.”

Sophisticated software

The internet, advertising, and sophisticated software have combined to produce a world where gambling has become normalised in the lives of the young, he says, to the point where it is now normal that young men (especially), when watching a sports fixture, have their phones out, and are distracted from actually watching the game.

The immersion of young people in an environment where gambling is normalised is also happening by way of games that are marketed to young children, O’Gara says.

An example of this is loot boxes, where a person playing an online game pays for a mystery “box” which, when opened, will contain items that will be of different levels of advantage to the person playing the game.

So, for example, a teenager playing an online soccer game who pays for a loot box and gets Ronaldo for his team, has “won” in comparison with his friend whose box opens to reveal a player from the Portuguese league whom neither teenager has ever heard of.

During the lockdowns we started seeing rapid onset gambling addictions

Such deals have similar characteristics to gambling and should be outlawed, according to O’Gara.

“The reason they are still there is that they are a multi-billion euro industry and there is no question in my mind that they are priming kids for future gambling.”

Free downloadable apps on an iPad that might advise parents that they are suitable for children as young as four years old, can include “spin it and win it” games.

“Parents wouldn’t be aware that their children, four-, five- or six -year-olds, are being exposed to a gambling feature there as well,” said O’Gara. “The point I am making is that it is not just online [football games]. The proliferation of gambling is on every level. It is online, on social platforms, on the high street, on radio, television, everywhere you look. It is proliferating at the moment, and it is big business.”

The profile of the patients O’Gara sees at St John of God Hospital has changed because of the internet, with more people being enticed to indulge in non-sports related online gambling.

“The prevalence of online gambling at first presentation has rocketed. Of particular concern is the transfer of young people from the sports betting product to the online casino suite, and in particular online slot machines.”

Additional boost

The arrival of Covid-19 and the resultant public health measures have given an additional boost to gambling addiction, according to Barry Grant, an addiction counsellor with Extern Problem Gambling, which is based in Waterford City.

“During the lockdowns we started seeing rapid onset gambling addictions. People who had never gambled before, or who had only done so moderately, were developing very severe issues over a couple of months because they were stuck at home, bored, with no social outlet.”

With a lot of sports fixtures cancelled, people started playing online poker, casino games, the “crack cocaine end of gambling,” he says. “We are seeing people in their early to mid-20s who have gone off the rails completely and are suffering severe consequences already at that stage in their lives.”

While the clients tend to be male, there are more women coming forward, “which is good because we know that there are more women getting involved”.

The Irish gambling company, Paddy Power, founded in 1988, has become, by way of organic growth, acquisitions, and mergers, Flutter plc, a global gambling operator based in Dublin that employs 14,500 people in offices around the world.

In August, Flutter’s share price rose by more than 8 per cent when it disclosed that its pre-tax profits had trebled to £72 million sterling (€91 million) in the first six months of 2021.

Operating profit in its Irish and British businesses, which include Paddy Power, Betfair and Sky Bet, increased 54 per cent to £297 million, with all of this growth happening online. Because of Covid, the betting shops had been closed for most of the period, and had racked up £59 million in losses.

"Online definitely saw a benefit during that period," Conor Grant, chief executive of the UK and Ireland division of Flutter, told The Irish Times. But the growth in business did not result in an increase in problem gambling, he says. "We decided in March 2020 to step up monitoring and didn't see any increased harm."

What we have to recognise is that our industry has not always put its best foot forward

Paddy Power is the focus of a recent book by Dublin journalist, Aaron Rogan, called Punters: How Paddy Power Bet Billions and Changed Gambling Forever. In the book Rogan outlines how, while marketing itself as a fun-focused, punter-friendly corporate entity, Paddy Power also used sophisticated technologies and data-mining to track and maximise the losses of those who availed of its products.

The book paints a picture of a company where gamblers who lost the most money were called VIPs, and were offered gifts, corporate hospitality, and other inducements to continue gambling, while those whom the company assessed as likely to win more than they would lose were frozen out.

Grant, who started his career in Paddy Power, says he would refute any implication from the book that Paddy Power, or Flutter, seeks to profit from problem gamblers. Such a suggestion “couldn’t be further from the truth. The vast majority of our customers enjoy betting and gaming safely”.

The company is in favour of regulation, is in favour of Ireland setting up a gambling authority, and has been pressing the Government to do so for years, he says. He adds that it is entirely untrue that the industry wants to self-regulate.

Huge regrets

Stewart Kenny (70), one of the founders of Paddy Power (he hired Grant on a graduate programme), resigned from the board of the company in 2016 because of his frustration that it was not doing enough to protect problem gamblers, he told The Irish Times.

“I have huge regrets that I was not a lot more proactive when I was on the board, even though I did raise it at every board meeting for three years in a row, and resigned on the issue,” he says. “I was fast asleep at the wheel when it came to the dangers of online and I would have huge regrets, even though I was calling for the measures.”

Measures were taken by Paddy Power back then, he says, and measures are now being taken by the industry. However he feels they are mostly driven by public relations concerns.

“One of my major concerns is that an 18-year-old who has seen all the ads on telly since he was 10, and who opens an account to . . . put a tenner on his team, the next thing he gets absolutely bombarded and sucked into the much more addictive casino product and he is offered free bets and everything.”

Gambling is “an incredibly profitable business” and the “highly addictive” casino products are “easy money,” Kenny says.

“I was really relaxed about my children opening an account, but as long as they are trying to suck people into the casino, I would not be relaxed about my grandchildren opening an account.”

He believes that as well as appointing a regulator (experienced, from abroad) the Government should introduce direct legislation banning aspects of the current gambling regime.

“In my view there should be no cross-selling, no sports bets punters being cross-sold to casinos.”

He would also like to see gambling advertisements banned until 9pm each day “so the children are not affected, and that there is nothing done to normalise gambling for children”.

“I love gambling. The majority of people gamble responsibly and for fun. The idea that [introducing restrictions would be] a libertarian disaster, well, no, because those restrictions won’t affect anybody other than the vulnerable.”

Grant moved from Paddy Power  to work at Boyle Sports, Sky Betting, and now Flutter. Asked if he shares Kenny’s regrets, he says “everyone can have the benefit of hindsight. What we have to recognise is that our industry has not always put its best foot forward. What we are doing today is making serious strides to reduce harm”.

The sophisticated technologies and use of data that are highlighted in Rogan’s book and that allow operators detect the most profitable customers, also allow the industry to monitor its customers and intervene when problem gambling is detected, Grant says.

Online slots

“We do, like any business, segment our customers and any online business will have a customer segmentation profile. Absolutely. That is part of our business. We offer different customers different offers, and customers can opt out of them at any point in time.”

But the company is nevertheless focused on identifying problem gamblers and intervening as part of a harm reduction strategy, he says.

“We are investing heavily in safer gambling. I’ve got 200 people working on safer gambling and monitoring customer accounts all the time. That didn’t exist five years ago. When you talk to Stewart Kenny and these people, that didn’t exist. So what you are seeing is night and day in terms of the approach of operators like ourselves to reducing customer harm.”

Flutter has already introduced measures to protect young people in relation to online casino and online slots, as well as a ban on TV advertising from five minutes before a match kicks off, to five minutes after it ends (a whistle to whistle ban).

But it is Flutter’s ability to monitor all its millions of customer accounts that, Grant says, gives it a powerful ability to protect its customers from harm.

“Account-based controls are more pertinent than pointing out one product . . . and saying it is the heart of the issue.”

Both Australia and the UK have long had restrictions that still don't exist here

As well as having a responsibility to protect customers from gambling harm, Flutter also, he says, has a responsibility to its millions of customers who enjoy its products safely.

“We as a business are leading the race for safer gambling.”

The general scheme of the Gambling Regulation Bill, recently published, gives the proposed authority the discretion to prohibit the use of credit cards by gamblers. The proposed new law envisages that operators will be prohibited from offering inducements such as free bets or tokens, or higher prizes or better odds, or “VIP or preferential treatment” to gamblers.

The authority will develop binding codes on spending limits and codes on advertising that licenced operators will be bound to comply with, the law envisages.

The Irish Association of Bookmakers, which includes Flutter among its members, has recently added a ban on credit card use by customers to its voluntary code of practice, and introduced “whistle to whistle” bans on TV ads during sporting events – other than horse and dog racing. It is supportive of the introduction of a gambling regulator.

Australia passed its law creating a gambling regulator in 1999, and the UK did so in 2005. Both jurisdictions have long had restrictions that still don’t exist here.

O’Gara has a list of measures he would like to see imposed by a new regulatory regime, but his number one priority is that a regime is introduced in the first place. In 2013 gambling control legislation was published but never passed into law.

“I would be fearful that history might repeat itself,” he concluded.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent