Britain's 1.5 million problem punters

Click to follow
The Independent Online
An estimated 1.5 million people in Britain are "problem gamblers", including pathological punters and teenagers obsessed with fruit machines, according to a report published yesterday.

The findings suggest that government proposals to relax betting laws and increase the number of casinos, combined with the success of the National Lottery, will lead to an increase in gambling problems and a rise in crime.

The most common crimes associated with gambling are fraud, embezzlement, forgery and theft. "The pattern of offending is similar to that associated with illegal drug addiction," says the Home Office-commissioned study.

Young people, especially men, are particularly at risk from gambling addiction, with around 5 to 6 per cent suffering problems, mainly through playing slot machines.

Gamblers Anonymous yesterday warned of "an explosion" in problem gambling over the next few years, fuelled by the National Lottery and scratch cards and an increase in the number of available casinos.

Earlier this year, the Home Office proposed allowing new casinos in 13 towns, permitting advertising for the first time, allowing late night drinking and higher stakes and pay-outs on machines. It has been examining the issue since February and is due to make an announcement on the issue in the next few months.

In 1994, there were 119 casinos in the UK with an average nightly attendance of 30,000 people who spent pounds 2,230m. The 900 bingo clubs attract 500,000 each day with pounds 811m at stake.

But the new study, by experts from Glasgow and Plymouth universities, suggests there will be serious social consequences of expanding the current system.

The report concludes that any expansion in gambling facilities leads to an increase in problem gambling. "Studies also show that increased accessibility of gambling has led to an increase in crime, including both organised crime within casinos and crime resorted to by problem gamblers to fund their habit," it says.

Male and female problem gamblers appear to choose different types of games, according to the research. Men opt for blackjack and roulette while women prefer bingo, lotteries and gambling machines. Slot machines are the first choice for the young.

The report warns of the pressure gambling puts on health services and help groups. "Prevention programmes barely exist in the UK," say the authors. US studies show that gamblers may suffer a range of physical, psychosomatic and psychological disturbances and have high suicide rates, they add.

The study says a crude estimate based on figures from other countries suggests that just over 3 per cent of the adult population in Britain - about 1.5 million people - experience gambling problems.

A spokesman for Gamblers Anonymous said: "It is difficult to get a true picture of the problem because so many people try and hide their gambling addiction and only seek help in desperation when the bailiffs are at their door.

"As a group, we are not against gambling because it's a business, but we are against high-profile gambling such as the National Lottery and scratch cards because it can encourage people to become compulsive gamblers."