A nation of gambling addicts: Teenagers and women at risk, warn doctors

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Britain is heading towards a gambling epidemic, leading doctors will warn this week, with women and teenagers at greatest risk of addiction.

A major report from the British Medical Association is expected to say there is an urgent need for more treatment services, especially for women gamblers, who are expected to equal men within 20 years as gambling becomes more female-friendly.

The verdict from experts on the BMA's board of science, to be published on Tuesday, will also warn that children are at increased risk of becoming gambling addicts with the liberalisation of gaming. They are calling for more research to understand the causes of gambling addiction, for the gaming industry to contribute more towards treatment and for more targeted services.

There are an estimated 300,000 problem gamblers in the UK, but the BMA predicts the figure will rise with an overhaul of the gaming laws this autumn. The Gambling Act will lift entry restrictions on casinos and bingo halls and allow TV advertising for casinos.

The report comes ahead of an announcement later this month on the location of Britain's first Las Vegas-style supercasino. Eight cities have been shortlisted for the casino but another 16 licences will also be granted for smaller casinos.

The BMA says gambling addiction is a low priority for the NHS, behind drugs and alcohol. It issued a warning last year of an explosion in gambling addiction because of the rise of internet gambling and the introduction of supercasinos.

Ministers plan to monitor the impact of the new laws with regular audits into the number of people seeking treatment. They also say that there are safeguards within the new gambling laws to protect children from becoming hooked.

But Professor Mark Griffiths, co-author of the BMA report, told The Independent on Sunday that addiction services were needed countrywide and that money was needed for prevention campaigns. Professor Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, said: "The liberalisation of gambling and the number of different ways people can do it, such as mobile phones and spread betting, means the figure will go up."

Experts estimate that each primary care trust will need up to five therapists at a cost of £50,000 each but say that health officials are failing to make proper provision for addicts.

Alan Meale MP, a member of the committee which scrutinised the gaming laws before they were passed, said new outlets for gambling would lead to a rise in addiction and called for the gaming industry to pay its share towards treatment.

"Addiction isn't like flu; it doesn't just go away and you can't take a pill to beat it. It will take money and time to train NHS staff to deal with it," said the Labour MP. "Money should be set aside from gambling taxation to pay for treatment because there is not enough infrastructure in place in the NHS. There is little expertise to deal with even 300,000 people."

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