Problem gambling: Amid heavy advertising and a surge in remote sports betting, more and more 16 to 24-year-olds are now seen as 'at risk'

Neasa MacErlean looks at what can be done to tackle a looming crisis

Neasa Macerlean
Friday 25 July 2014 23:46
Spectators at the Isle of Wight music festival watch the World Cup on the big screen. Betting promotions were a feature of the tournament
Spectators at the Isle of Wight music festival watch the World Cup on the big screen. Betting promotions were a feature of the tournament

In years to come, this year's World Cup could be seen as a turning point – a time when millions of young supporters around the world took up the suggestion of television advertisers and began gambling. A trend not yet widely appreciated is that the young have a growing gambling problem.

The 16-24 age group is twice as likely to be in the "at risk" category as the UK population as a whole, according to research just published by the Gambling Commission.

While 7 per cent of males across the whole adult population are estimated to be "at risk", that proportion more than doubles to 16 per cent among men aged 16 to 24. Similarly, while 2 per cent of females are at risk, that number more than doubles too in the 16-24 age bracket.

The research – contained in a document entitled "Further analysis of the Health Survey for England 2012 and Scottish Health Survey 2012' – is ringing warning bells among experts.

The lead author of the report, Heather Wardle, a director at NatCen Social Research, wants a greater focus on this area urgently so that "those at risk don't go on to develop the problem".

Pointing to some of the features of the World Cup – the apps, the mobiles and the advertising – she says: "You can see how the environment in which people are growing up is changing."

It takes just a few seconds to place a bet from your armchair or bar stool on who is likely to win a match, score first or get a yellow card. And fans who took a punt during the World Cup now have only three weeks to wait before the Premier League starts again on 16 August.

Although little research has been carried out on the gambling habits of the young, the warning signs are clear to those who open their eyes. "We are crying out for more education in schools," says Elaine Smethurst, managing director of a gambling therapy charity, the Gordon Moody Association. While alcohol, smoking and drugs are covered in the PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curriculum in schools, gambling is not.

Meanwhile, the charity reports that the age of its clients is falling. Ms Smethurst says: "The traditional age tended to be in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Now we have a sizeable number of clients in their 20s and we are getting people applying to us who are students."

At GamCare, the industry-funded support service for problem gamblers, the evidence is slightly mixed. A site launched two years ago for 12 to 18-year-old gamblers is receiving just 10 calls a month to its helpline. But GamCare's chief executive, Dirk Hansen, is still profoundly worried. "We have strong concerns about lack of funding on preventative programmes for 11 to 17-year-olds," he says. "A lot of teens we talk to want to become gamblers rather than seeing gambling as a risk."

An additional challenge faced by GamCare is that the gambling environment is changing so fast that it has to run to keep up. But it is working on this and is, for instance, launching a new site this September that includes a self-assessment tool so people can see if they are at risk.

Another problem, however, is that funding to curb problem gambling comes almost entirely from the gambling industry itself, rather than from the state. While the "gross gambling yield" (total income less prizes and bets paid out) for the sector was £6.69bn in the year to September 2013, according to the Gambling Commission, the amount available for prevention, research and treatment is under 0.1 per cent of that, around £6.3m, in 2014-15.

The state has benefited, in fact, from encouraging gambling. It set up the National Lottery 20 years ago, thus privatising the donation of money to many good causes. Although most people would see lotteries as harmless fun, they are nevertheless an introduction to taking risks on random chance.

Ms Wardle says it is not just the young who could benefit from some education. She thinks mothers and fathers might need to be educated about gambling risks – about the possible effects of encouraging their children to go into seaside arcades on holiday or to have a 'flutter' on the Lottery. "Some parents introduce their children to gambling," she says. "There's no harm in that necessarily – but, for some, it becomes out of control."

Other risk factors for problem gambling, according to Ms Wardle's latest research, include religion (with Catholics being more likely to be at-risk gamblers and Muslims less likely), cigarette smoking and increased levels of alcohol consumption. In their ethnic grouping analysis, Ms Wardle and her team were startled by one result that had never emerged before. People in the Black or Black British ethnic groups are five times as likely to be categorised as problem gamblers than Whites.

So, while 0.5 per cent of Whites are classified as problem gamblers, the proportion jumps to 2.5 per cent for Blacks and Black British. As yet, the researchers have "no idea why" this should be the case, but they hope that future research will explore the causes.

For its part, the Government can point to the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 as an indication that it is aware of gambling problems. Over the next few months, gambling organisations based outside Britain but operating within the country will need to be licensed by Britain's Gambling Commission. This is a significant move because the "remote" sector is growing fast – up 62 per cent in the last four years and now accounting for 15 per cent of the British gross gambling yield, according to Gambling Commission statistics. Companies that are based abroad have previously been able to ignore the rules and guidance existing in this country.

New rules are also being prepared to limit the stakes and payouts on the near- 34,000 fixed-odds betting machines that have allowed people to bet £100 a time.

However, we can only guess at the effects of television advertising by large British-based gambling companies during football and tennis matches. "Sports betting is increasing among the general population," says Ms Smethurst at the Gordon Moody Association. "There is now a crossover between enjoying watching the sport and gambling on it."

Case study: the student

Jamie, not his real name, went to university at the age of 19 to study law. His descent into gambling was gradual at the start. Away from home, handling a substantial amount of money for the first time (his student loan), he went to a casino for the first time with some of his new friends. He had a "great night" and won some money.

Over the next few weeks the group returned several times – but Jamie was keener than the rest and began going alone. He was hooked.

As he later told the Gordon Moody Association, each time he was asked to contribute to a household bill, he would go to the casino to try and win the money. He succeeded quite often but then always lost what he won.

Jamie began to work part-time in a coffee shop to shore up his finances, but he gambled away the money for a present for his mother, couldn't pay the rent and then gambled away the money his mother sent him to pay it. He took £250 from the coffee shop till, hoping to repay it after a night in the casino. The inevitable happened. He ran away, knowing he could face theft charges, and ended up on the streets.

After a few months, a hostel put him in contact with Gordon Moody. He reconnected with his mother, who had feared the worst, and his family repaid the £250.

After a stay in the treatment centre, he completed a relapse prevention programme and is now doing voluntary work.


BigDeal (help for young gamblers):

Gambling Commission:


Gordon Moody Association:

Responsible Gambling Trust:

CAP UK (debt counselling):

National Debtline:

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