How a flutter can become a lethal addiction

Charities are reporting a big rise in calls from addicts, while bookies and casinos rake in bigger and bigger profits.

Casinos revealed bumper profits in their latest results while £500m was exopected to be wagered at horse racing's Cheltenham Festival this week. But the figures mean despair for hundreds of thousands of families. The number of people with a gambling addiction has increased by around a third during the recession. Meanwhile around 450,000 people termed "high-rollers" are losing eye-watering amounts of money, risking losing their homes and are often committing crimes to fund their habit.

Gamcare, a charity which provides free counselling for those with a gambling problem, now receives around 35,000 calls a month from those needing help, while the industry contributes just £5m per year to deal with the problem. That's less than a tenth of one per cent of the gross profits made from gambling in Britain over the same period.

Behind the scenes filibustering from bookies is preventing the problem from being dealt with effectively, while in terms of profits the industry has never done better. Last month Ladbrokes posted a 20 per cent increase in profits, while William Hill reported a 7 per cent hike in profits. In March, meanwhile, Betfair announced that revenue was up 6 per cent on the previous year.

According to the latest report from industry watchdog the Gambling Commission, nearly three-quarters of adults gambled in 2008, up from 68 per cent the previous year. Clearly the recession acts as a recruiting sergeant for many, including vulnerable members of the community chasing a dream of financial security.

There is now mounting pressure from charities and clinics for a "polluter pays" approach to dealing with the growing problem, which is being exacerbated by increasingly clever marketing and new ways of betting around the clock online including using mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet PCs.

Jim Fearnley, head of licencing and research at the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, allocates half of his £5m budget on recovery and detriment services. The rest is spent on education, harm prevention and research. "There are up to 450,000 people in Britain that we might term high rollers. They spend eye-wateringly large amounts of money in very short spaces of time," he says. "This small proportion of 0.9 per cent of the population spends a disproportionately large amount of money."

Problem gambling is defined by the Gambling Commission as "gambling to a degree that compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits". A survey published last year warned that it may have increased by more than a third since before the recession.

Two screening techniques are used to identify the problem. DSM-IV is a clinical test in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, and has diagnostic criteria including committing crime to fund the problem and a need to chase losses. The Problem Gambling Severity Index is used in larger-scale sociological contexts and has nine criteria, including gambling causing guilt or health problems.

The consultant psychiatrist Henrietta Bowden-Jones opened the first and still only NHS national problem gambling clinic in June 2008, and since then has had 700 referrals. Patients are at first given nine sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy, for which there is a 75 per cent success rate.

Bowden-Jones says that a fifth of gamblers with an addiction are using the internet. "The rest are going into traditional outlets such as bookmakers and casinos." She describes gambling addiction in similar terms to a narcotics addiction – an area she also specialises in: "Gambling addiction has recently been reclassified as a behavioural or hidden addiction from what was termed an impulse disorder, it has too many of the qualities of other forms of addiction."

Addicts will see an increase in the amounts of money they are gambling and the amount of time they are spending doing it, says Bowden-Jones. "It begins to affect occupational, recreational and family activities. They will break up with their partners and it is not uncommon for them to lose their homes to fund their gambling. Around half of the people we see will have committed some form of criminal activity to fund their addiction."

Addicts will usually lose far more than someone who is addicted to so-called hard drugs, and abusers are not confined to any one set of demographic criteria. But crimes will often be white collar: "It is fraud – fiddling the books at work rather than stealing razorblades from a supermarket. These are money-driven acquisitive acts designed to give them the cash they need to gamble," says Bowden-Jones.

Gary Pettengell, founder of Empowering Communities, runs the Count Me Out national gambling self-exclusion scheme, which he launched in 2007. It is a technique which has been in formal operation since 2009 and was updated earlier this month, where an addict commits to avoiding a particular gambling venue.

A licenced code of practice for the gambling industry requires gambling establishments to support this by having "procedures for self-exclusion and take all reasonable steps to refuse service or to otherwise prevent an individual who has entered a self-exclusion agreement from participating in gambling". Licencees must keep a register of those excluded, including names, photographs, addresses and other details.

"I first had the idea of introducing a co-ordinated national scheme in 2001," says Pettengell. "We are in no way anti-gambling. As a self-sustaining, not-for-profit social enterprise, we exist to help and empower victims, local communities, vulnerable people and their families." The organisation has gone from receiving a few calls a week relating to self-exclusion before the recession up to a few calls a day currently.

Meanwhile the industry claims it is doing all it can to help the self-excluded. Tessa Murray, a spokeswoman for the bookies Betfair, says that one of the advantages of online betting is that you have to deposit the money before you start: "We have put in place a wide variety of consumer processes and player protection tools to help people manage their betting." Self-exclusion procedures are in place, but she says identifying people who ought to self-exclude can be difficult: "You could spend £60 of benefits on online roulette and it would be a big deal, equally someone could spend thousands and it may not be."

Debt advice charities can give reformed gamblers the legal advice they need to deal with their debts once they have kicked the habit. Gambling debts after 1 September 2007 are legally enforceable, but those made before are not – following section 334 of the Gambling Act 2005 which says that gambling contracts must be treated in a the same way to other contracts in law. Debts and a gambling problem will feed off each other as the addict chases his or her losses further down.

"Research has found that gambling-related debt problems are likely to have more severe impacts on the health and well-being of individuals and families than managing either problem gambling or problem debt on their own," says Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, which runs the National Debtline.

Charitable donations are welcomed by all the gambling addiction and debt advice organisations affiliated with the industry. But it remains to be seen whether public pressure over a growing and serious issue will cause the bookmakers and casinos to respond to those who say that contributing less than a tenth of one per cent of gross profits to the problem amounts to shirking a social responsibility towards the most vulnerable.

The gambler's tale

Jon Wright, a 31-year-old customer service adviser from Hull, contacted Empowering Communities seven months ago and has now been clean for six. "It started with the book makers, small bets, and then got more serious with internet betting." Jon said the allure of internet gambling was that he could do it after hours while the lack of social cues from other punters and the fact that no physical money is handed over meant he lost increasing amounts of cash. "Sports betting moved on to roulette and I would lose thousands of pounds in a single session." On one occasion, Jon lost £7,000 in about three hours using William Hill Online. "The problem with self-exclusion is there are always ways to get around it – you can sign up under a new name with a different credit card."