Alex Phillips: We really need to talk about gambling

Alex Phillips
Alex Phillips

'No amount of positive spin would lead me to believe I could make my fortune via gambling'


It’s hard to empathise with something you do not suffer from, and for many of us, it is pretty easy to walk past a bookies or bemoan the various pop up ads inviting you to place a bet or play virtual roulette online. Frankly I find the concept of feeding coins into a one armed bandit, jabbing away at a fruity until a shower of stinking coppers is vomited out of the bottom both tedious and wasteful.

No amount of positive spin would lead me to believe I could make my fortune via gambling. The Grand National is where my dalliance with betting begins and ends, and that’s only on the rare years that a grey horse with a serendipitous name trumps my guilt at falling horses being sent to the knackers’ yard.

Yet for those trapped in the cycle of upping the ante, reinvesting the winnings, saying one last flutter, the effects of addiction can be life destroying. It’s a blight that preys on people from all walks of life, at the very top, with billionaires chasing bigger thrills at higher stakes, and at the bottom, where the hope that maybe just maybe rolling the dice will result in a sum of money that could afford the holiday, pay off the debt and solve all your problems. Dear viewer, it rarely does.

To understand quite how prolific gambling is, you only need to consider the the number of phrases that circulate, from all bets are off, throwing in your two bit, luck of the draw, play your cards right, put your money where your mouth is and down to the wire, that if you get too sucked in to a life of betting, the cards will almost certainly be stacked against you.

Megacities from Monte Carlo to Las Vegas with vast sparkling towers, luxury hotels, show girls and celebrities exude the potent glitz of glamorous gambling, yet perhaps the most pernicious and destructive form of betting is via the recent proliferation of online sites, offering free introductory bets, guaranteed cash prizes, money essentially for nothing at the click of a mouse. These are sites that target your average housewife, or coax sports fans to start punting on more and more matches, the intrigue of the game tied up with the lure of financial gain. They know who they seek and how to manipulate them to keep betting. Just one more. It will be my last.

A recent study by the University of Bristol has found that betting shops are ten time more prevalent in the poorest towns and cities, exposing perhaps the unscrupulous predatory nature of an industry that cynically calculates that targeting those without money is the best way to extort it, ruthlessly exacerbating personal debt to turn a profit, with half of the UK’s gambling treatment centres found within a five minute walk of the nearest betting premises.

A staggering 500 school children die each year, often by suicide, as a result of gambling addiction, according to Gambling With Lives, a charity set up to combat the ballooning risk to kids of getting lured into arcades and bookies or buying up batches of scratch cards. Yet it’s also an industry that supports 119,000 jobs, generates four and a half billion pounds in tax and contributes almost 8 billion to the economy. We of course even have a National Lottery, a state run country wide televised tombola whose profits are used for high profile charitable causes.

Yet in a survey for GambleAware, it was estimated 2.7% of adults in Britain, 1.4 million people, were problem gamblers, far greater than the 0.7% cited by the Gambling Commission. In fact, statistics suggest that half of us have gambled in the past month alone. In fact 7% of adults, or 3.6 million people, have been negatively affected by someone else’s gambling problem with nearly 5 million Brits suffering from harm linked to wayward betting.

Families break up, lives are destroyed, houses lost, lies, cheating, desperation, exploitation, abuse, loan sharks, dodgy syndicates, illegal bets, punch ups, poverty and suicides. Today, we need to talk about gambling.