Online gambling is becoming more attractive to women than drugs or alcohol, according to the UK's leading female addiction specialist. Liz Karter has warned that work stress is a major cause of gambling addiction for women who are frequently turning to online poker at home rather than winding down with drinks in a wine bar.
At its most extreme, women in the grip of a gambling addiction who have lost huge sums of money are stealing to feed their families or are on the verge of losing their children, she warns.
"Instead of going out drinking, women are coming home from work and switching on the PC. Many are in demanding careers and want to be able to escape at the end of the day while remaining in control in a way they would not be after drinking or taking drugs. Then they can return to the real world and at first there are no side effects – only later do the problems really start when the habit sets in."
Experts say that spiralling numbers of women are admitting to gambling problems in the wake of the explosion of online gambling. GamCare, the industry-funded organisation, said it received more than 54,000 calls last year – up almost 4,000 on the previous 12 months.
Half of all women callers to their helplines had problems with internet gambling compared to a third of men, up from 44 per cent on 2011 figures. The Gambling Commission regulator's latest omnibus survey in January also showed that 55 per cent of women questioned admitted to having gambled in the previous month.
Ms Karter, whose new book Women and Problem Gambling was published last week, has worked as an addiction therapist since 2001. Female gambling addiction is frequently misunderstood, she argues. Women coming through her door are just as likely to be professional as they are from deprived backgrounds.
"They know they cannot go into work with a hangover the next day so they see gambling online as a safer option," she said.
She says the women addicted to gambling whom she helps are from across the social divide and are often from backgrounds where they have suffered domestic abuse or damaging relationships.
Almost three-quarters of her clients are single parents or living alone. The explosion of online gambling advertising, allowed following the 2005 Gambling Act, has also had a huge, negative effect on patient recovery, according to Ms Karter.
"Historically, women have been more inclined to be machine players, like the traditional slots. I'm now seeing a crossover to online gambling which is a particular problem because now accessibility is so easy via smartphones or tablets.
"Clients tell me they feel as if they have only been online for 20 minutes when in fact it runs into hours and hours."
Ms Karter, who works with all the leading UK problem gambling treatment centres and runs the Level Ground Therapy centre in London, says gambling advertising is making life harder for recovering addicts.
"It's perhaps unfair to say whether gambling advertising lures women in, but my clients tell me they feel they can't escape it when they are in the recovery phase. There are so many reminders everywhere. It's like trying to get over a relationship and seeing pictures of your ex-partner all over the TV, the newspapers and the internet. It makes recovery very difficult."
Ms Karter, who is also a member of Community Action for Responsible Gambling, is critical of the marketing tactics of major gambling operators. She says she is aware of underhand tactics from major gambling operators attempting to lure addicts back to their websites.
"Many contact the companies to ask to be banned from gambling, which they are. Then they receive an email a week or two later from a subsidiary website offering them free cash saying, 'We miss you'. Would your local pub offer you free whisky to feel better two weeks into a drying-out period?"
The UK's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, recently said in a report that online gaming was changing people's view of who they are and threatening community cohesiveness.
"I think he is right," said Ms Karter. "We will be spending more and more time online in the future, and the growth of online gambling addiction will continue. It's a very bleak outlook."