Cheltenham week combined with the effects of the prolonged Covid-19 lockdown could create a perfect storm for problem gamblers, addiction experts have warned, and they urged the Government to push through legislation to control the industry that has been eight years in the making.
A ban on gambling advertising was “the minimum we would expect to see in a civilised democracy”, said consultant addictions psychiatrist Prof Colin O’Gara.
“It’s an over-18s product. We know that it can be highly addictive to a lot of people. We don’t have other over-18s products advertised at breakfast time and throughout the day and associated with healthy pursuits like sport,” he said.
While the first version of the Gambling Control Bill was introduced back in 2013 it has not yet been enacted, but Minister of State with responsibility for law reform James Browne recently announced he hoped to publish the Bill and appoint a new gambling regulator by the end of the year.
Mr Browne said the Government “commits to the establishment of a gambling regulator focused on public safety and wellbeing, covering gambling online and in person, and the powers to regulate advertising, gambling websites and apps”.
Seed funding of €200,000 has been earmarked to support the establishment of the office of the gambling regulator.
“It is intended that the regulator will ultimately be self-financing through a levy on the industry,” a Department of Justice spokesman said.
The amount of the levy has yet to be determined but the early discussions on the law suggested imposing a 1 per cent charge on the turnover of the gambling companies to help fund problem gambling support services and research.
“That is very substantial, but it needs to be substantial,” Prof O’Gara said. “You are talking about a network of treatment services across the country; this will be multidisciplinary consultants, community addiction teams that have a specific focus on gambling.”
Call for ban
The Labour Party recently called for a ban on advertising by gambling companies, but stopped short of calling for an immediate ban on sports sponsorship.
The Irish College of Psychiatrists is pushing to prohibit both, Prof O’Gara said.
For problem gamblers in recovery, the week of the Cheltenham festival is like “Christmas for somebody who’s trying to stay off alcohol, it’s just full on,” said Barry Grant, an addiction counsellor and founder of Problem Gambling Ireland.
“It’s just almost impossible to ignore. The triggers to gamble, inducements to gamble, advertisements about gambling, people talking about gambling, radio and TV programmes where Cheltenham is brought up and gambling is mentioned,” he said.
“It has a really big impact on people in recovery because there’s almost nowhere you can hide from this.”
Outside of advertising, “a total ban on credit-card gambling” should be “a no-brainer” for the new regulator, Mr Grant said, adding that “there would be a huge benefit” in introducing daily or monthly spending limits and regulated affordability checks.
This year the problem has been compounded because all the indicators suggest a sharp rise in the levels of online betting since the outbreak of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns, said Prof O’Gara, pointing to an increase in betting duties and bookmaker profits, as well as the metrics from treatment centres.
Official estimates suggest there are at least 29,000 gambling addicts in Ireland, with young men particularly vulnerable, but Prof O’Gara said several studies and reports conducted in Ireland and the UK indicate the true number to be significantly higher.