‘People are dying’: Campaigners want gambling classed a public health issue

• Charles and Liz Ritchie’s son Jack killed himself after gambling
• ‘The industry targets vulnerable and those already addicted’

Campaigners for stronger government regulation of gambling have called for it to be classed as a public health concern and for betting companies to be required to prove their products are safe before being allowed to launch them.

Charles and Liz Ritchie, whose son Jack, 24, killed himself after being drawn into gambling at 17, run the campaign Gambling with Lives alongside the parents of other young men whose deaths followed problems with gambling.

The Ritchies’ call for a “precautionary” approach to be adopted towards the betting industry follows the Guardian’s publication of research which highlighted the “gamblification” of football support for many young men. The research, conducted by Dr Darragh McGee of the University of Bath with two groups of football supporters aged 18-35, found that serial, in-play betting on multiple online accounts had become an intrinsic part of watching football for them, with some “dire consequences”. These included “deepening social and financial precarity, high-interest pay-day loans and bank debt, mortgage defaults, family breakdown, and mental health struggles”.

Charles and Liz Ritchie said McGee’s findings matched the experiences of their son, who did not even have very substantial gambling debts when he died, and the other young men whose parents they campaign with. They are all described by Gambling with Lives as “normal, bright, popular and happy young men who had great futures” and to have shared the characteristic of “cheerfulness”, which they accuse the gambling industry of exploiting.

“This research shows the level of normalisation that gambling advertising has brought to younger generations,” the Ritchies said. “Young people are now becoming addicted to the fast pace of in-game betting, which is more risky to health, generates much higher financial losses than gambling on the results of matches and ruins their engagement with the sports they love. The gambling industry spends £750m on direct online marketing and much of this targets vulnerable groups and those already addicted – much stricter regulation is essential.

“We are calling for gambling to be considered a public health issue but we need to see rapid progress and action. We know that people are dying every day because of gambling. We are also calling on the Gambling Commission to do their job, to protect young and vulnerable people. The rapid development and growth of in-game betting is happening without attention being paid to how addictive and dangerous this form of gambling may be. The Commission needs to take a precautionary perspective and not allow new gambling products to be launched and marketed to the young and vulnerable until they are proven to be safe.”

Like McGee, the Ritchies firmly believe that the accepted figure of 340,000 for the number of problem gamblers in Britain, 0.7% of adults and 1.2% of people who gamble, is likely to be a significant underestimate. The figure is based on an annual analysis of official health surveys, which ask participants about their gambling. The report itself, by NatCen, acknowledges as a caveat that: “Some people may give ‘socially desirable’ (and potentially dishonest) answers to a questionnaire and may underestimate the extent of their gambling behaviour.”

McGee said that in his research project he had encountered “a profound silence surrounding gambling behaviours, and an unwillingness among young men to discuss their gambling practices, let alone admit to having a ‘problem’.” He said: “Owing to the social stigma and reputation risk involved, many young men are reticent to come forward, meaning that official figures are likely to be underestimating the issue.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport responded to McGee’s research by highlighting the voluntary ban planned by the major online gambling companies on “whistle-to-whistle” TV advertising during live sport, and a promised expansion of NHS specialist clinics for people with serious gambling problems – currently there is only one national clinic.

The Gambling Commission defended its use of the 340,000 figure for problem gamblers, saying the statistics are “robust”.

The Remote Gambling Association, which represents major online betting companies, did not return calls to discuss the problems.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.