Gambling companies must take “urgent action” to stop exploiting addicts while leaving the health service to pick up the pieces, the NHS mental health chief has said.
Claire Murdoch described some methods employed by bookmakers as “cynical beyond belief”, particularly the targeting of loss-making customers, many of whom are signed up to VIP schemes and given incentives such as free trips to the races in order to keep them losing money.
Ms Murdoch also drew attention to the practice of buying the rights to screen football matches and then making viewers place a bet before they are allowed to watch them. This was “wrong, wrong and wrong again” she said.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ms Murdoch pointed to the industry’s £1.4bn annual advertising budget as a problem. “When you’ve got problem gamblers who are trying to stop gambling it becomes really difficult for them to get away from it, with things like free bets,” she said.
The industry’s ad budget dwarfs the £10m it contributed to treatment last year, an amount that does not come close to covering the total required to help Britain’s estimated 400,000 problem gamblers.
The NHS announced plans to establish 14 new centres to help people struggling to deal with their gambling as part of £2.3bn of new spending on mental health services.
Ms Murdoch wrote to Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McArthur and Betting and Gaming Council chair Brigid Simmonds to demand changes to the way companies operate.
“As the head of England’s mental health services and a nurse of more than 30 years experience, I have seen first hand the devastating impact on mental wellbeing of addiction and am concerned that the prevalence of gambling in our society is causing harm,” Ms Murdoch said.
“In particular… I am concerned that offering people who are losing vast sums of money free tickets, VIP experiences and free bets all proactively prompt people back into the vicious gambling cycle which many want to escape.
“For seven decades, the NHS has adapted services in response to current challenges – but we should not be expected to pick up the pieces from lives damaged by avoidable harm.”Top ArticlesNo 10 breaks silence to defend Dominic Cummings’ 250‑miletrip during lockdown
This week, the Gambling Commission introduced a ban on customers placing bets online with credit cards, which will come into force in April, but campaigners said much stronger action was required.
Ms Murdoch called for a number of measures to minimise the harm that gambling causes.
She added: “In order to operate safely, the gambling industry has a responsibility to prevent the occasional flutter turning into a dangerous habit.
“I am requesting that you please provide urgent detail on actions that your firm, and the industry, is taking to reduce the likelihood and severity of gambling addiction.”
Responding to the letter, Ms Simmonds pointed to ways in which the industry had introduced initiatives to tackle problem gambling.
These include age verification checks; funding for research, education and treatment, and the introduction of a whistle-to-whistle ban on gambling advertising during live televised sport.
“We take our responsibility to our customers incredibly seriously and we are determined to raise standards and improve safer gambling,” Ms Simmonds wrote.
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