The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, James Browne, is due to bring forward a new regulatory framework for gambling this autumn. Since previous minister for justice Alan Shatter’s Gambling Control Bill was drafted in 2013, each year brought more disappointment that successive governments failed to enact new legislation. Shatter’s legislation represented an excellent starting point for gambling harm minimisation and player protection but every year we were left wondering why it was apparently so difficult to implement.
Political inertia in modernising gambling laws is not unique to Ireland. The then UK sports minister, Tracey Crouch, handed her resignation to prime minister Theresa May in 2017 over a lack of progress in gambling reform. Crouch had appropriately advocated for a reduction in the stakes of fixed-odds betting terminals, an addictive and high-stakes electronic gaming machine that could extract a player’s weekly salary within minutes.
There are many opportunities to curb gambling advertising on Irish-based media platforms. Research demonstrates that Irish children are repeatedly exposed to gambling adverts during the pre-watershed period
Over the past decade countless radio and television programmes in Ireland detailed the harrowing effects of severe gambling addiction. Those affected, family members, clinicians, politicians, sportspeople and senior gambling industry figures joined the clamour for gambling protections. It appears now that there is finally some movement.
It is expected that the Government will commence with setting up a regulator for gambling within a new office for gambling control. Advertising is one of the most obvious starting points for focus. There are many opportunities to curb gambling advertising on Irish-based media platforms. Research demonstrates that Irish children are repeatedly exposed to gambling adverts during the pre-watershed period. Gambling adverts tend to be concentrated on radio, television and social media around weekend sporting events.
The situation becomes more challenging for an Irish regulator when UK broadcasters coverage of football and other sporting events are considered. More than 75 per cent of English Premier League teams have a betting sponsor and this competition is hugely popular with Irish audiences. Advertising of gambling products at televised sporting events can present on static hoarding, dynamic electronic strips, seating areas and team apparel. Team shirt sponsorship, a recent favourite of gambling companies, may be banned in the UK in the coming months as the UK ratchets up its focus on gambling advertising.
Gambling addiction is a disorder characterised by persistent harmful gambling in the face of adverse consequences. Gambling addiction differs from drug and alcohol addiction in that the person suffering from the problem may show no signs that they are in trouble. Relatives of those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction are at least given some warning signs that there is a difficulty with frequent and obvious intoxication in their loved one. The chaos and suffering in gambling addiction is incredibly silent and hidden. A reasonable estimate is that there are 50,000 Irish people severely affected by gambling addiction. A further 200,000 are in an “at risk” category where they exhibit problematic gambling but do not reach criteria to be considered severely affected.
There are likely to be many battlegrounds around gambling regulation between a new regulator and the gambling industry in Ireland. The area that is most relevant to clinicians working on gambling addiction treatment is the provision of a “social fund”.
It is abundantly clear outpatient treatment alone will not be sufficient for those severely affected and time away from any means of gambling in inpatient units is necessary
Shatter’s 2013 Bill proposed that 1 per cent of the gambling industry turnover would be collected for the provision of treatment services and research. Research has highlighted that there is a near complete absence of treatment services for gambling addiction in Ireland. Existing community-based services for more generic addiction problems, such as alcohol and drug addiction, are already severely limited. A 1 per cent turnover levy, if it was to be collected, would be substantial, ensuring establishment of a national network of dedicated gambling addiction services. These specialist services could provide evidence-based treatments for gambling addiction in addition to a range of other relevant supports in areas, such as debt management and mental health problems.
Gambling addiction carries a high rate of both suicidal thoughts and actions. If we are really serious about protecting people in difficulty with gambling addiction we will not only look at establishing a network of community-based teams but also invest in specialist inpatient units. It is abundantly clear outpatient treatment alone will not be sufficient for those severely affected and time away from any means of gambling in inpatient units is necessary. The good news is that if money is invested in this area people will recover, relieving the burden on mental health and criminal justice systems.
Central to the implementation of new legislation should be the gambling addiction patient and their family. International data supports the concept that gambling addiction not only affects the individual but also several people around that individual in a very detrimental way. After many years of wondering when positive changes might come about for those affected by gambling addiction, it appears that, finally, hope is on the horizon. It remains to be seen if the Coalition partners will meet their programme for government commitment and truly grasp this opportunity for real and meaningful reform.
Colin O’Gara is head of addiction services at St John of God Hospital