A very big bet: Why doctors say the new casino culture is bad for you

The supercasino, round-the-clock online games and loan sharks are feeding an addiction that is hard to cure. A health timebomb is ticking, and women are most at risk
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Almost by stealth, the UK has been gripped by gambling fever. Mobile phone betting, spread betting and internet gambling mean there are more opportunities to gamble than ever before. And more addicts.

The national lottery has done most to bring gaming out of litter-filled betting shops full of disappointed men, while the internet allows people to gamble 24-hours a day. Over the past 10 years remote betting, via the internet, mobile phones and interactive TV has made gambling quicker and easier. The number of visitors to gambling websites in the UK has doubled in the past two years, and quadrupled since 1999.

To this already potent mix is added Britain's first Las Vegas-style super-casino, location to be announced at the end of the month along with a string of smaller venues which will boost the coffers of an industry already worth an estimated £40bn. The new Gambling Act will tighten restrictions on gaming, but will also allow casinos to advertise on television for the first time, while casino visitors will no longer need to apply 24 hours in advance.

The nation's health is in danger, say doctors. The British Medical Association (BMA) will this week say that teenagers and women in particular are at high risk of becoming gaming addicts and that urgent action is needed. Experts from its board of science are also expected to say that health officials are not doing enough to ensure treatment is in place ahead of a radical overhaul of this country's gambling laws this autumn.

There are around 300,000 known problem gamblers in the UK, although figures have not been updated since 1999. Charities say the numbers are likely to be far greater now. Gambling addiction is classed in the same category as drug and alcohol abuse and three-quarters of addicts suffer from depression. Treatment includes cognitive therapy as well as anti-depressants which can help to quell the urge to gamble.

In theory, doctors can refer addicts to treatment services. In reality, the BMA says that gambling addiction is a low priority within the NHS and that the voluntary sector is often left to provide support for an illness that can devastate families, financially and emotionally.

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable. Research carried out by children's charity NCH found that it was easy for children to register and gamble online. Some three-quarters of 12- to 15-year-olds have played slot machines, five per cent showing signs of gambling addiction.

Ministers have included safeguards in the Gambling Act to protect children from getting hooked on betting. These include making it an offence to encourage teenagers to gamble and removing fruit machines from take-aways and minicab offices. They argue that regulation is better than prohibition, which merely drives gambling underground.

Officials have told the IoS, however, that there is not much they can do to curb the popularity of online betting because many sites are registered outside the UK.

One expected impact of the new gaming laws is that more women will turn to gambling. Men currently outnumber women three to one as problem gamblers. But Professor Mark Griffiths, who co-authored the BMA report, said that he expected a levelling out between the sexes over the next two decades.

"The internet is a gender-neutral environment and there is scope to gamble on a wider number of things than before, such as the latest eviction from the Celebrity Big Brother house," he said. "Within two decades there will be no difference between the numbers of male and female problem gamblers; they will simply be gambling on different things."

Victoria Clark, 42, became addicted to gambling after starting to play instant win games online. In only eight weeks, she had debts of £27,000. "It was so easy for me to get more and more money on the internet. A year before I has asked the bank for a small business loan and it was declined, yet I was able to borrow £7,000 through an online loan firm without any questions asked."

Ms Clark, who has a child and runs a hair salon in Rotherham, came across a advertisement for responsible gambling when she was checking her lottery numbers. It was the first time online that she had seen any warning.

"I realised then that I had got into trouble. I started to research responsible gambling and saw that if I had used other sites I would have been told to set a limit on my weekly spending and never would have got into so much debt.

"I have credit card companies ringing me on a weekly basis demanding money, but I just don't have it and I tell them that. I would never touch online gambling again. It is the worst scam of the 21st century. I just hope that all websites will soon be made to have some social responsibility."

The Government has pledged £3m a year to pay for research, education and treatment of problem gamblers. But charities that say this is not enough are already bracing themselves for an increase in addicts. Gamcare, which dealt with 40,000 calls for help last year, is forging links with drug and alcohol addiction charities across Britain, to train counsellors ahead of the relaxing of the laws in September. They also plan to launch an online one-to-one counselling service.

Faith Freestone, from Gordon House Association, the UK's only residential gambling addiction centre, is concerned about women gamblers.

"When alcohol started being packaged in pretty colours to attract women drinkers - a few years down the line you have a problem with binge drinking," she said."With online poker, women who would not have gone out to play it are now doing so in a competitive environment without the potential confrontation."

Ministers will in the summer publish new figures on gambling addiction and prevalence checks are to be carried out every three years by the Gambling Commission. They say they will take action to tighten up gambling laws if these audits show any rise in problem gambling.

The Department of Health said that anyone with a gambling problem who seeks help from the NHS will be offered support and, if necessary, treatment to help them overcome their addiction.

Critics say, however, that the NHS does not even have the expertise to deal with the existing number of gambling addicts let alone new ones. Alan Meale MP, who sat on the committee that looked at the laws before they were passed, said the new outlets for gambling would lead to a rise in addiction. "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," he said.

"Money should be set aside from gambling taxation to pay for treatment, because there is not enough infrastructure in place in the NHS at the moment. There is little expertise to deal with even 300,000 people." Dr Adrian Lord, from the Bowden House clinic in Harrow, which is launching a new gambling addiction programme next month, warns of a "health timebomb" if action is not taken to treat addicts.

"We are not trying to be killjoys, but we have to be aware that a percentage of people are going to get addicted and not enough attention has been paid to the health side," he said.

Professor Griffiths says it will be virtually impossible for the Government to put all the infrastructure in place in time to deal with the new laws and warned that civil servants at the new Gambling Commission, which will oversee new casinos, were "struggling".

"There is only so much work it can do," he said.

"You currently have different parts of gambling, such as lottery tickets and spread betting, dealt with by up to three government departments."

Additional reporting by Jonathan Owen

Winners and losers: Celebrities past and present have flirted with Lady Luck

Ben Affleck, actor and poker player

"I'm into poker. The biggest night I've had was winning £160,000 in a tournament. I spent about £13,000 [in one night], which was money I'd won playing blackjack. That's about six outfits at Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana."

Jo O'Meara, singer, 'Celebrity Big Brother' contestant and fruit machine punter

"My back's not too good, so gambling is all I can do. I come as much as I can, quite a few times each week. It's my only release and it's an outlet for me.

"I play on the fruit machine that pays out a £500 jackpot. I've already won the £500 prize nine times. I think I've just about broken even."

Wayne Rooney, footballer and fan of horse-racing

"If I knew Coleen [McLoughlin, his fiancée] wasn't going to be there, I'd stop at the bookies and put a few quid on a horse.

"I wasn't putting on huge amounts, just a few hundred at a time or perhaps a thousand now and again. After about a year, though, I'd lost about £50,000, which was stupid. When Coleen found out, she was furious and told me how daft I'd been."

Vinnie Jones, ex-footballer, actor and owner of several racing greyhounds

"People just aren't aware of what a great time you can have at the dogs. I really enjoy the drama and adrenalin of the racing. When the dogs ping out, and when they're coming round the last bend, it gives you a real buzz."

Damon Hill, racing driver and bingo player

"I'm addicted to adrenalin, that's why I love it. It's a bit like racing a Grand Prix car."

George Bernard Shaw, playwright and roulette player

"Gambling promises the poor what property performs for the rich - something for nothing."

Zac Goldsmith, green guru and poker player

"Gambling is the only source of argument with my wife - to her, it's a sickness. I could get out of control but I don't lose very much. Well, sometimes I do."

Frankie Dettori, jockey who bets on horses

"I started gambling with the stable lads, and we were too young to drink, so we didn't really have a choice! We couldn't go to the pub. I remember many times being skint on the Friday, because I'd lost my money at the bookmakers."

Jennifer Tilly, actress and poker player

[On becoming the World Series of Poker ladies' champion in 2005] "This was an amazing experience - better than winning an Oscar."

Patrick Marber, playwright and blackjack player

"It was like I'd found my own particular vice, surrounded by strangers and my own little universe."

Willie Garson, actor ('Sex and the City') and poker player

"It's gotten very expensive. The other night I looked around the table and saw that everybody there was worth $50m except me."

Mark Twain, author and poker player

"There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker ... Why, I have known clergymen, good men, kind-hearted, liberal, sincere and all that, who did not know the meaning of a 'flush'. It is enough to make one ashamed of the species."

ODDS ON: The rise and rise of the betting craze

ONLINE

There are more than 2,000 betting websites. Worldwide revenue from online gambling is expected to double over the next five years to more than $20bn (£10.2bn).

BOOKMAKERS

Bookies enjoyed increases in turnover of as much as 200 per cent between 2002 and 2005.

SPORTS

Last year's World Cup was the biggest betting event in sporting history, with British bookmakers taking £1bn in bets.

NATIONAL LOTTERY

More than 70 per cent of adults play the Lottery on a regular basis. Over 95 per cent of the population recognise the crossed fingers logo.

CASINOS

There are already 123 casinos registered in the UK. The industry has offered £5bn as "planning gain" cash to local councils in exchange for new licence applications.

NUMBERS GAME: How the costs and profits add up

£40bn: ESTIMATED value of the United Kingdom's betting industry

300,000: APPROXIMATE NUMBER of gambling addicts

26,000+ RETAIL OUTLETS selling lottery tickets and scratchcards

75 per cent OF CHILDREN aged 12 to 15 have played slot machines

40,000: CALLS MADE to gambling helplines last year

£50,000: ANNUAL COST OF one therapist to help gambling addicts

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