Gambling Kills

Since I’ve been blogging on the Huffington Post I’ve written about cannabis, alcohol and sex. This is what I would like to say about gambling…

Ever since someone came for treatment for compulsive gambling at the addiction rehab clinic where I work, I have wanted to find out more about this type of  addiction. But therapists are a priestly lot when it comes to talking about their patients and the rules about confidentiality are so strict that its hard to find out about our patients.

So I turned to the Internet and found a series of rather shocking facts. An NHS survey in 2009 found that since restrictions on gambling were lifted over 1.3 million Brits have a gambling problem.  But governments love gambling because it brings in dollops of dough without the controversies of taxation — some call it the ‘voluntary tax’ — and the Exchequer rakes in almost £100 billion a year from gambling taxes.

In the USA there are said to be 10 million gambling addicts and if you think that each one of these has a negative effect on friends and family, I wonder how many Americans are affected by gambling?  Is it really true that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”?

Out of all the addictions, gambling is the one that results in the most suicides.  “It’s a disease that kills” says Dr Timothy Fong, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, “25% of gamblers who have entered treatment have tried to kill themselves”. Compare that figure with drug addicts and alcoholics – of whom about 10 to 15% attempt suicide – and it puts into context how dangerous gambling can be.

What particularly shocked me was the tactics that casinos use to entice people who show signs of being addicted to gambling. Casinos give out smart cards and with these they track players, evaluate their worth, and send gifts in the post that will tempt them back — plane tickets, free hotel rooms, free chips, etc. They ply their clients with free drinks, remove all clocks and windows from the casino so they lose track of time and make the design of the place so complex that you can’t leave without passing endless rows of slot machines (“the crack cocaine of gambling”). You will never see an “Exit” sign in a casino.

The American casinos have perfected a diabolically clever system that is designed to get vulnerable people – people who may be depressed or compulsive or show signs of becoming addicted to the games – coming back again and again, bankrupting themselves and their families in the process. One writer said “imagine you were in recovery from alcoholism and suddenly a case of Johnny Walker lands on your doorstep.”

“Casinos are a psychological minefield.” writes the author of a fascinating article on the tactics that casinos use. “Their architectural design, as well as everything in it, has a methodical function devised to keep you, the player, inside spending your money.”  All these tactics are designed to make the players “feel comfortable, wanted, and most of all, optimistic.”

Prior to Tony Blair’s government, gambling was restricted in the UK.  The last labour government allowed the building of casinos with jackpots of £4,000, and bookies and betting websites were allowed to advertise on the TV for the first time.  British casino operators were not slow in learning the marketing tactics the Americans had perfected.

“These figures illustrate how gambling is fast becoming an endemic problem across different age groups” said Anne Milton in 2009, when she was the Conservative Party’s health spokesperson. But since taking power the Conservatives’ moral objections to gambling have been quietly forgotten.

One Response to Gambling Kills

  1. Julian says:

    I’m with you here, Rupert. The prevalence of advertisements for gambling in Britain truly is shocking. These are sophisticated adverts aimed at snaring the vulnerable. They are everywhere: on television, roadside adverts, on buses. It all started, I think, with the National Lottery (called by some a “tax on gullibility”) which came about under a Conservative government. Not that Labour showed the slightest leadership or foresight when it had the opportunity.

    Many people, of course, take the view that it isn’t “people like us” who gamble, drink to excess or a variety of other ills. Therefore by implication we don’t need to do anything. This is very short-sighted, and a psychological abheration that government takes advantage of.

    From what I am seeing here in Britain, a government with a mandate to sort out the nation’s problems and the power to transform policy into deeds is fiddling around the periphery. For example, they want to redefine what the word “marriage” means. State forms are being changed to read “Parent A” and Parent “B” in place of “Father” and “Mother”. Irrespective of the fact that addiction is far more destructive of any relationship than the word used to name it.

    I have lost hope in a political class that works hand in glove with those interests that harm the people.

    An American commented to me earlier in the week that it’s curious how the casinos on Native American reservations are being used to fleece the White Man. It was put to me that inflicting gambling on the old enemy was akin to revenge for those smallpox-ridden blankets.

    But that doesn’t explain or excuse the shameless greed being used to harm vulnerable people in Britain.

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