Shine A Light

The gambler's tale

The UK gambling industry wants problem gamblers.

13 December 2011

A sister piece to Exploiting addicts.

I kissed my fiancee goodbye, but this wasn't going to be a normal working day. I had left a note on the bed and as I walked through the park on my way to the police station, I couldn't believe what gambling had done to me. I was about to hand myself into the police as I had lost millions to gambling and none of it was my money.

I'm 34 and I've gambled since I can remember and although the dangers of gambling were not spelled out to us at an early age, there was still a prohibition surrounding it.

It was frowned on and not glamourised as it is today.

It's no surprise that figures published by the Gambling Commission on February 15, 2010, highlighted that since the law was relaxed problem gambling has increased by 50 per cent and 3.5 million adults are either problem gamblers or are at risk of experiencing problems with their gambling.

My gambling has affected around 500 people who had no idea that they were hours away from hearing the news that an addiction they didn't have was going to impact on their lives. That's why it's called the 'secret' addiction. Only two people know the addict's secret – the bank manager and the bookie.

I was gambling between £20,000 and £60,000 a day and they knew I didn't earn more than £25,000 a year. The industry relies on the fact that once a gambler has lost everything, he or she will keep quiet and go in shame, or the family will bail him/her out to save embarrassment. Thus society remains unaware of the true nature of the problem.

The former culture secretary Tessa Jowell assured the public that the industry would react to its new freedom in a responsible way. They took this freedom and turned old-fashioned bookies into mini-casinos with the rise of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). These machines are so addictive and so profitable for bookmakers that their only issue was that they were restricted by law to four per shop!

I often wonder why people don't question the fact that in the worst period of economic uncertainty in living memory bookmakers are investing heavily in new premises and staff. You'd expect to see closures in 2011, not a proliferation of bookies all along the high street.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals are providing 41 per cent of landbased bookmakers gross profit, and 61.7 per cent of new referrals to the NHS Gambling Clinic in Soho have an addiction to these machines.

The industry will tell you that it doesn't welcome 'problem gamblers' because they are bad for business, but they don't make the money they do from people wagering 50p a year on the Grand National.

I've heard from industry staff that their bosses do not take kindly to them trying to stop an addict from spending as they'll spend their money elsewhere.

In the months since that fateful day at the police station, I've been receiving treatment for my gambling addiction, although my GP had no idea what to do and suggested I was depressed.

I can't just sit back and watch it happen. I helped form Gambling Reform & Society Perception Group (GRASP). We want to lobby government to create a safer betting industry and to change perceptions of gambling. I am currently on bail awaiting trial. Gambling turned me into a criminal and I know I must be punished. At GRASP we are mostly made up of recovering compulsive gamblers who don't wish to go in shame, and wish to save future people from going through the hell we have.

Kevin Finnerty is a pseudonym. This piece first appeared in The Friend, the weekly Quaker magazine.

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