Has online gambling become a public health emergency?

It often begins at a young age with a sit-down one April with a parent or relative, telling you to pick a horse out of a 40-strong Grand National field that they’ll place a small wager on for you.

You’ll pick by humorous name or colourful outfit – and it’s all in good jest.

As you grow up, it develops into the odd accumulator on the football, a novelty trip or two to the casino, a couple of quid on the fruity and the odd purchase of Lotto tickets and scratch cards.

While this, on the surface, appears relatively harmless – for some, it can be the gateway gamble that gets them hooked into a downward spiral of damaging addiction.

Vegas, at your fingertips: These days, it is easier than ever before to gamble, even on the move – by simply heading online via smartphone or tablet

And more Britons are falling into this gambling drift net than ever before.

Personally speaking, I have gambled on all of the above – and still do, very occasionally, but never more than I can afford to lose. But, despite only being in my early 30s, I grew up in a different era.

My only exposure to gambling before I was 16 was my dad encouraging to a pick a horse at the most bonkers, unpredictable meet of the year and he’d pop into a smoky bookies to lay the bet – and sometimes, he’d allow me to choose the lottery numbers.

Nowadays, we’re bombarded by gambling adverts on television and online, shirt sponsors on sporting teams and the biggest threat of all, the ease in which gambling can be done in the comfort of your own home without a fiddly telephone betting account.

The biggest obstacle to those gambling before was they had to enter one of those old fashioned bookies or set up a clunky phone account and that deterred many.

But now, with a few quick taps and swipes of a smartphone or tablet, bets can be placed on football matches in Azerbaijan and Oscar results in LA – along with flashing roulette wheels and slot games to boot. 

There has been a recent advertising drive – ‘Bet Regret’ – in which we see someone betting on their phone after a few drinks in a kebab shop on an obscure football match, and another in which a man bets on a horse race he knows nothing about on the toilet.

It highlights that many are just gambling as ‘something to do’, and they have the means to do so now via telephones that travel everywhere with us – and for many, it becomes a habit difficult to stop.

Cleaning Up: Sheridan Smith played Sam Cook, who had a gambling addiction in the fictional ITV show

Cleaning Up: Sheridan Smith played Sam Cook, who had a gambling addiction in the fictional ITV show

And it’s not just a male orientated problem. 

As recent fictional ITV show Cleaning Up starring Sheridan Smith highlighted, women can also be hooked in cuddly looking sites promoting bingo and other themed games you can gamble on – and end up in dangerous debt.

Recently, I was at a baby boot sale event, hiding in the corner with my young daughter in her buggy while my partner shopped. I stood next to two other dads.

It was a Saturday and both stood there, on their tablets placing bets on the day’s football matches, largely ignoring their children.

Another example was during the recent Cheltenham Festival – my train commute home was littered with people placing bets on their phones.

Again, it highlights the ease in which people can gamble these days, and betting firms have seen a surge in online customers and profits in the last few years.

There has been much talk about a crackdown on the betting industry and better protection for our children. But currently it seems to be a lot of chat, not much action.

For instance, I watched the enthralling England versus Ireland Six Nations rugby match in February (after the excitement of the baby boot sale) and the game was littered with high octane gambling adverts.

If I sat there in a few years’ time with my daughter more aware of what was actually going on, she would be exposed to it without option.

Surely, in this day of high-tech, television watchers could choose to turn these adverts off?

Worryingly, the Advertising Standards Authority recently created a number of child avatars online and mimicked typical behaviour on the internet.

It was an exercise to see what types of ads children are swamped with while online. 

Over a two-week period, it found a total of 23 gambling ads appeared 151 times across 11 of the children’s websites monitored.

Grand National: It is one of the most bet on horse race meets in the world - and it is easier than ever before to gamble on it

Grand National: It is one of the most bet on horse race meets in the world – and it is easier than ever before to gamble on it

Meanwhile, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said this week at a think tank policy seminar that ‘current gambling laws are completely unfit for the digital age.’

He added: ‘Problem gambling is Britain’s hidden epidemic. We should treat it as a public health emergency.

Looking for help?

If you are looking for help, advice or support in relation to your gambling, please go to: BeGambleAware.org 

Or contact the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133.

‘Gambling in the offline world is highly regulated, the lack of controls on online gambling is leading vulnerable consumers suffering huge losses.’

It’s hard to disagree.

In terms of the Grand National last weekend, I did have a small flutter by entering a (smokeless) bookies – but I won’t encourage my daughter to do the same when she gets older.

Estimates show that many used a credit card to bet on the event costing millions in fees – and many may have done so because they do not have money available elsewhere.

It’s time for credit card betting to be banned, stronger advertising regulations, exposure to children of gambling to be more closely monitored and those who are in a regular pattern of gambling self-harm to be identified and helped quicker.


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