Gambling 24/7: The addiction Ireland doesn’t know enough about

As betting moves out of the bookies’ and on to the mobile phone, a new kind of gambling addict is emerging. Who are the losers and winners in Ireland’s fast-changing gambling world?

‘The first day I did it I felt bad,” says Jim. While he was working at a bank Jim went into a friend’s account and stole from him. He kept dipping into it until the money was gone and his friend was overdrawn. “In my head I was just borrowing it, because I was going to win and put it back.”

In those days, Jim laughs grimly as he tells me this, he was a financial adviser. He enunciates every word with disbelief. "And I had the Racing Post on my desk every day."

He was in his 20s, and for all of his working life he had been involved in self-destructive gambling. Once, in the UK, he had been demoted after collapsing at work from the stress of his gambling habit.

“Lack of sleep – over excess – I ended up in the hospital with one of the managers. My pulse was racing,” he says. “They were convinced I had taken drugs.” He ended up on anti-depressants, “but anti-depressants never stopped anyone from gambling”.


Another time, after losing inheritance money at Cheltenham, he attempted suicide. It was the only time in England that he hadn’t gone to a race meeting on a Saturday, so his friends broke into his apartment and found him.

In his late 20s he came home to Ireland, to family help and psychiatric care, after a kindly Irish doorman paid for his flight. A friend had already given him the money for his airfare, “but on the way to buy the ticket I went to the bookies and lost the money. He couldn’t believe it.”

Back in Ireland, and still working for the same company, he continued to gamble, placing multiple bets every day.

One day, on his way to a funeral, he was sidetracked by a race meeting. On another occasion he was betting on racing-car laps online when he pressed the zero button too many times. “I was putting on a tenner but accidentally put on a thousand – and lost it in 26 seconds. I went up to the toilet and felt like throwing up. But then I’m back in front of the computer again.”

He had done other fraudulent things before stealing from his friend. He had cashed cheques with no money to support them – “large amounts of money, a month’s wages” – but now he was aware that things were catching up with him. “I knew the system inside out and upside down,” he says. He had been taking money for seven weeks, “so I knew it was going to show up.”

He thought he would end up in jail. “For some reason I went to a doctor,” he says. “I said, ‘I think I’ve a gambling problem.’ He started laughing and said, ‘You think? You’ve a serious gambling problem.’ ”

He ended up at Gamblers Anonymous, crying his eyes out while some men who would soon become his friends cooked him a fry. He lost his job. He lost his girlfriend ("because of all the lies"). But he stayed out of jail. The friend Jim had stolen from said that he, as the account holder, had authorised the payments, and Jim slowly paid him back.

By the end of it all Jim didn’t even own clothes. “I had my brother’s clothes. All I had was a helmet, two hurleys and a portable TV that I’d cut the teletext button out of, because I’d heard at the meeting that I shouldn’t be looking at it.”

Seven years later and now in his mid 30s, he goes to meetings every week and has a good job and a fiancee. “The life I lead today is the polar opposite to when I was gambling – holidays, a good job, a great girlfriend, a good relationship with my friends – and yet those were the things I gambled for. I gambled for them because I thought that only if I had more money could I” attain them. He shakes his head when he thinks about it. “It was mad.”

Extreme unhappiness

Problem gamblers such as Jim are "as miserable as cancer patients," says Prof David Forrest of the University of Liverpool, who studies gambling and is the author of a study called The Unhappiness of Problem Gamblers. "It was dramatically bad. Being a problem gambler tripled the probability of extreme unhappiness," says Forrest, referring to the study's findings.

The trouble is that problem gamblers are a small minority of the gambling population. His survey also showed that people who gamble recreationally had a “slightly more elevated level of happiness” than the general population. Forrest stresses that these findings may not be causal, but a number of people who have read his report have summarised it as saying that gambling benefits a large number of people by a little and hurts a small number of people by a lot.

So what can be done? And what should be done for those whom it hurts?

The number of people with serious gambling addictions is small. Prevalence surveys internationally – there is no Irish prevalence survey at present – suggest that about 90 per cent of gamblers gamble with no major problems, that about 7 per cent are at risk of developing issues, and that “between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent of the general population” are serious problem gamblers, according to Forrest. “That’s a figure the industry loves,” he says, that “less than 1 per cent are problem gamblers”.

There are numbers that the gambling industry is less keen to discuss. A recent survey of the UK industry by three academics, Mark Griffiths, Jim Orford and Heather Wardle, “found that 30-35 per cent of the industry’s revenue comes from full-blown problem gamblers. That’s very significant. The Australian Productivity Commission, which undertook the biggest research exercise there’s ever been on gambling, came up with similar figures for Australia.”

When you hear about the debts that problem gamblers can run up, this figure starts to make sense. Aiséirí is a network of addiction-treatment centres in Ireland, treating disorders including drug, alcohol and gambling problems. Debts of problem gamblers at its centres in 2011-13 ranged from €20,000 to €500,000. Such debts can do huge social damage: to mental health, to families, to businesses.

Rapid change

Gambling is a big business. The European market is estimated to be worth €80 billion a year, but it is undergoing rapid change. Gavin Kelleher of Goodbody Stockbrokers estimates the gross revenue from gambling in Ireland as about €1.1 billion a year. (He stresses that it’s impossible to be certain.) That figure is made up of €314 million from land-based betting and €310 million from lotteries – two figures he can be “pretty confident of” – with €8 million coming from bingo, €130 million coming from gaming machines (which he stresses are very under-regulated) and €65 million coming from casinos or private members’ clubs.

The online market, Kelleher says, is difficult to quantify, but he estimates it is worth €220 million. The market is dominated by Paddy Power, Boyle Sports and Betfair. Numerous other operators make up "quite a long tail".

The traditional, land-based bookmaking market is shrinking. In 2008 there were 1,365 betting shops. There are 948 today. Sharon Byrne of the Irish Bookmakers Association believes another 50 will go as Ladbrokes’ examinership process concludes.

Gamblers seem to be migrating online. Paddy Power says that 77 per cent of its profits comes from the online side of the industry. (It doesn’t break down the Irish market specifically.)

Dr Colin O'Gara, a consultant psychiatrist at St John of God Hospital and a researcher at the school of medicine at University College Dublin, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of patients with smartphone- and other online-gambling problems.

“Gambling may be a hobby for people, but it’s inherently an addictive behaviour,” he says. “Just like alcohol or drugs. It’s not harmless.”

O’Gara conjures pictures of lads in pubs watching matches, all with their phones out, gambling. He tells of young men who lose vast sums of money on their phones while sitting in rooms with friends and family. By the time they come for treatment, he says, they have other psychiatric difficulties, most commonly depression, and are involved in “almost 24/7” gambling.

“There’s a complete loss of control and no rationale to the behaviour. A pathological gambler looks at things in a totally different way. They feel they’re going to win all the time. If they have had a series of losses they feel they’re definitely going to win. That’s what they call ‘gambler’s fallacy’.

“They’re betting on the lower tennis divisions in Florida or third-division South American football teams,” he says. Debts vary “from students owing several thousands to people involved in spread betting owing multimillions.”

Although online gambling is easily to access and hard to control, it should, in theory, allow easier collation of information on risky behaviour. But while online operators are using their huge data sets for marketing purposes, to identify customers suitable for promotions and gifts, they do not yet use the data to identify problem behaviour and intervene.

Most companies don’t cut people off purely because they’ve lost a lot of money. “Though a lot of them will block you if you’re winning too much money,” says O’Gara.

The Paddy Power chain says it would be unfair to expect online-gambling companies to make diagnoses. “We’re not clinicians,” says its communications director, whose name is also Paddy Power. “We can’t say to people, ‘You’re a problem gambler.’ ” The company is working with McGill University, in Montreal, on a study analysing the behaviour of at-risk players, but it and other operators prefer to promote “responsible gambling” and offer optional spending limits and self-exclusion services for customers worried about their gambling.

O’Gara notes that such opt-in measures require a level of self-awareness that many problem gamblers have lost.

Information gap

One of the biggest problems, says O’Gara, is the lack of figures about the number of Irish people gambling, how they’re doing it and how much money they’re losing. This information gap could begin to be addressed by a 1 per cent turnover tax on online bets.

This is due to be introduced by the Betting (Amendment) Act in August this year – it was held up by the European Commission – but the problem hasn’t been helped by the delay in implementing the 2013 Gambling Control Bill and establishing the Office of Gambling Control, which could be a hub for such data.

The Department of Justice says that the legislation is awaiting drafting and that it is “not possible to say when it is likely to be published”.

“I don’t know why that’s been delayed,” says David Hickson, director of the Gaming & Leisure Association of Ireland and managing director of the Fitzwilliam Casino & Card Club, in Dublin. “We need an appropriate legislative framework so that appropriate standards are set for the operators to adhere to.”

Academics are attempting to address the data gap. Dr Crystal Fulton of UCD is studying gambling in Ireland for publication next month, and O'Gara has put together a national online survey ( "It's to gather very basic demographic information about people's gambling in Ireland," he says. "We don't know anything about what devices people are gambling on, what topics they're gambling on, whether they're using betting exchanges, sports betting, actual casinos."

Regulation is a tricky issue. Typically, one part of the industry likes to say that their competitors are offering a uniquely dangerous form of gambling that should be suppressed,” says David Forrest. “They usually want governments to regulate another part of the industry.”

Forrest believes that governments should resist draconian measures. “What sits centre stage consistently is the tension between the argument that many people get fun from gambling and should be allowed to enjoy themselves” and the fact that “a proportion of gamblers appear to lose control and suffer and have messed-up lives as a result”, he says.

“If you get more prohibitionist you maybe ease the problems of problem gamblers, but you also deprive people of their fun. I think the contemporary shifts are towards trying to escape that trade-off by having much more targeted policy for problem gamblers.”

Forrest also says that targeted policies require good data. That information is absent in an Irish context, but for Colin O’Gara one thing is clear about the gambling scene here: “A lot of money is made in gambling in Ireland, a lot of money is lost, and a lot of people are sick.”

How to beat addiction: Five problem-gambling initiatives
Norway's card system The Scandinavian state has introduced a "gambler's ID card", says Prof David Forrest of the University of Liverpool, who studies gambling. "Whatever type of gambling they do, whether sports betting or slot machines, they have to bet with the card . . . If you have a partial approach you don't know what other gambling medium [the gambler] might be playing. So they go for across-the-board monitoring of what gamblers are doing and impose maximum daily spends. If you're chasing losses a message will appear, reminding you what you've lost in the last hour."

US-style prohibition The US online-gambling industry crashed to a halt in 2006 with the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. Then, in 2011, the FBI shut down and took legal action against several sites (including the Dublin-based Full Tilt Poker). State by state, online gambling has been making a comeback in the US since then.

Awareness Operators typically favour approaches where gamblers themselves choose to opt out. The UK Senet Group, an independent body established by William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and Paddy Power, "in response to public concerns on gambling, and gambling advertising in particular", is running a series of "Bad Betty" ads advocating responsible gambling, but Colin O'Gara, a consultant psychiatrist at St John of God Hospital, is sceptical. "Some suggest the ads are actually triggering. All the emphasis is on the word 'fun' in the phrase 'when the fun stops'."

Phone-based therapies As much gambling is now done by smartphone, O'Gara is working with technologists to develop phone-based therapies for problem gamblers. This could mean, he says, using the phone to monitor a problem gambler's location, medication and sleep patterns, to act as an early-warning system for a relapse.

Smoking bans "One of the most effective anti-problem-gambling measures worldwide has been the smoking bans," says Forrest. "These were been followed in different countries by drops in the number of calls to problem helplines," because people leave the bookmaker's or the casino to smoke, "and once they've gone outside the spell is broken." Many campaigners advocate more formally enforced "time outs" for gamblers, both online and offline, to stop them simply rolling from one bet to the next.