Philip Hensher: A ruthlessly efficient way to ruin people

Addiction levels in online gambling are atrociously high - and this is an industry still in its first stages
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The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, has summoned ministers and senior government officials from some 33 countries to Ascot to discuss the explosively expanding online gambling industry. It seems to have struck governments that something might be done to control this new activity. What solution the Ascot summit will end up agreeing on hardly seems worth trying to guess. The problem by now might be out of all control.

According to some estimates, out of the regular one million British users of online gambling services, 300,000 have what could be described as a problematic addiction. That is an extraordinarily high proportion. The estimate might be confirmed by the number of new addicts seeking help for gambling addiction in recent years - a rise of 41.3 per cent in 2004 and 2005.

There are plenty of activities which are indulged in both innocently, for pleasure, and through addictive need - shopping, eating, drinking, betting, buying scratch cards, smoking tobacco, marijuana or crack cocaine, injecting heroin.

We ought to be concerned in any of these situations, not about the general numbers of addicts, but about the likelihood that innocent users will turn into addicts, or the proportion of innocent users to addicted users. The structure of the industry used to mean that you had to step through the door of a turf accountant, take a trip to a racecourse, join a casino. It's relatively difficult to start, and requires a degree of determination even to repeat the experience. I've hardly ever done any of these things, and the most I've ever lost or won at a game of cards was, I believe, all of £6.50.

Online gambling is, it hardly needs saying, a completely different experience. If instead of graphics of roulette wheels and playing cards, they bore plain figures or the recognisable icons of computer games, users would see this soon enough. To become a user, and quickly, an addict, you only need to slip sideways from a news website, an online bookshop, a travel agency, and without effort you are throwing good money after bad into the internet's bottomless maw.

You may think, as I do, that gambling is fundamentally rather sordid and common, the resort of bored minds, but though considerations of social disapproval might stop you from walking into William Hill in the middle of the day, they won't prevent you from logging on in the privacy of your own home.

Responsible gambling websites, if such a thing can be conceived of, do carry warnings about addictions, they do allow users to set limits beforehand, they can probably do all sorts of things to avoid cases such as that of the poor Sheffield woman who, it was reported yesterday, had lost £28,000 in eight weeks, never having gambled in her life before. But of course they are there to make money out of their victims, or customers if you prefer, and will only do that if they compete successfully with all sorts of irresponsible websites operated from remote and implausible tropical island states.

The levels of addiction in the online gambling community is atrociously high, and it's worth remembering that this has come about in the very short time the industry has been in existence. Many of those reported 300,000 addicts must have developed a serious problem within a week or two - a rate of "conversion" from idle amusement to need which no drug, not even heroin or crack cocaine, could match. And this is an industry still in its first stages.

Previous attempts to control the industry have been ineffectual or hypocritical. The United States' outlawing of internet gambling earlier this year is, as Tessa Jowell has said, just the new Prohibition, not at all likely to be successful, and, on the most cursory examination, protectionism of the most blatant and childish variety. What is needed is an understanding that online gambling is not in any sense an extension of bricks-and-mortar casinos, but something quite new, and ruthlessly efficient at ruining individuals.

First, it is just a disgrace that advertising by these businesses, of any sort, is permitted. Determined users would find the websites, but there can be no defence for luring in the vulnerable and suggestible.

Secondly, UK credit card companies and banks must be more responsible about letting their facilities be used for these purposes. If gamblers were required to pay for each game separately, rather than running up accounts, it would both act as a psychological deterrent and ring alarm bells at the users' banks and credit card companies. Financial institutions have been lambasted for lending money casually; it is difficult to think of anything more irresponsible than advancing money on a credit card for the purpose of gambling.

Of course, in the long term, the best bet against producing a nation of idle gamblers is to produce, through improved education, a population with enough of an inner life not to be tempted by betting. If gambling is on the rise, that might be because educational standards are so markedly on the decline, and an inner life has to be supplied by something. That, however, is so conspicuously beyond the capacities of this government that we shouldn't expect any real restriction on the kind of bread and circuses which bankrupt and starve. Something has to entertain the victims of enforced intellectual poverty, but it does seem hard that they should be robbed twice over.