A habit that is quite common, but rarely discussed; Billy Vaughan examines Ireland’s gambling culture

 
There is a disease in Ireland that affects just over one per cent of the population. It is a dormant disease, and many don’t realise they have it until after childhood. It costs millions each year in treatment and lost revenue. According to the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, it affects young people at 2-3 times the rate of adults. This disease is called compulsive gambling.
Gambling is a widespread issue in Ireland. Over €5 billion a year is gambled in Ireland, which equals to €10,000 per minute. Almost 44 per cent of the adult population bought a lottery ticket regularly in 2010; 12 per cent of Irish adults bet with a bookmaker weekly and 2 per cent bet regularly online.

A question that is often asked is where the starting point of this addiction lies. If we are not all addicts from the moment we place our first bet, how do we pinpoint when a gambling problem begins? Where does the dividing line lie?

“Less than one per cent of those who have a gambling problem receive help”

“Well most people would have a bet on occasion, for most it’s just fun. It’s when you start losing control; when you go over the amount you’ve set aside, that’s when it becomes a problem,” says Daniel, who works at Gamblers Anonymous. Daniel chose not to disclose his full name as part of Gamblers Anonymous policy. “For people with this problem, winning is a huge thrill. It’s a drug to them. They’ll just keep going until they win again, no matter what the losses in the meantime.”

Compulsive gambling can take hold gradually, often so that the sufferer doesn’t even notice. Studies have shown that compared with adults, adolescents have been found to have high rates of problems with pathological gambling. “We would definitely see more young people coming to us these days,” says Daniel.

“Ever since gambling started moving online, we’ve seen a parallel increase in young people using our services,” Daniel explains. Neuroscientists have suggested that young people are attracted to gambling because they are going through a time of high levels of risk-taking, novelty seeking, and impulsivity and this is said to feed into the urge.

Often, compulsive gambling goes unnoticed. We frequently hear about big wins, but rarely about the losses. And losses tend to significantly outweigh any gains, especially in people who have a gambling problem, because they often bet on random sports that they have no knowledge of or interest in.

Gamblers Anonymous help sufferers of compulsive gambling to overcome their addiction with the help of meetings, support groups and various techniques including cognitive behavioural therapy. Even when a sufferer overcomes their addiction, they can often be saddled with crippling debts for years to come.

Ireland’s culture is one that is very conducive to gambling. Far from discouraging the practice, a large part of the Irish government’s health funding used to come from the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, a lottery set up by an Irish bookmaker in 1930. Paddy Power, an Irish company, is a household name and one of the world’s largest bookmakers.

It is also a common misconception that gambling is a working class pursuit, says Daniel. “We would see people of all socio-economic types with problems, people who’ve spent their welfare for the week to pay for bets but also people who have stolen thousands from their businesses to fund it.”

Gamble Aware is an industry funded organisation committed to educating people and creating awareness about problem gambling. Every major bookmaker in Ireland has their gambling addiction policy displayed on their website. But is there a certain cynicism here? On Paddy Power’s page, they have the sentence: “When the fun stops, stop.” A welcome statement, but the biggest and brightest word on the page is “fun”.

Many other countries have employed novel ideas to varying degrees of success. Norway, for instance, has a system where every gambler in the country has a card they must scan when gambling. This way, their activity can be tracked, even if they move between several different casinos and bookmakers. The cards contain a mandatory spending limit and makes risk assessments based on your activity. Other places, such as South Carolina, have simply outlawed all gambling and driven the industry underground.

“Ever since gambling started moving online, we’ve seen a parallel increase in young people using our services”

There are a wide range of supports available here to people with gambling issues. These usually take the form of counselling and support groups. But getting people to come forward can often be more difficult than people with drink or drug problems.

It’s easy to tell if someone’s been drinking, but you can’t tell if someone’s gambled away thousands of euro that day. It’s easier for them to cover their tracks. Unfortunately the sufferer is often the last person to come forward; usually therapy centres are contacted by family members or friends. Perhaps this explains why less than one per cent of those who have a gambling problem receive help.

Clare O’Connor, the Students’ Union Welfare Officer, is making an effort this year to publicise the problem, and is working with Gamble Aware on a nationwide campaign. She is also working with Carl Fulton, a UCD academic who has done a vast amount of research on the topic. “I’ve seen the detrimental effects it can have, and often students don’t realise it’s a problem until it’s too late,” she said.