There’s a scene near the end of Rounders where law student/cardshark Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) describes how he feels walking into an underground poker hall: “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career,” he says. The movie doesn’t just depict the exhilarating thrill of winning a big hand—it (more often than not) delivers the gut-punch reality of loss. And that’s appropriate since many gambling stories don’t have a happy Hollywood ending. And according to a recent Guardian article, that’s most definitely the truth for gamblers in the UK.
Apparently, a new report which reveals that gambling addiction costs the UK more than £100m a year in mental health and counseling services. (That’s about $133 million in American dollars, by the way.) No matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on, the figure shows just how difficult it is to beat the odds of gambling addiction.
The True Cost of Gambling
The mental toll that gambling takes on addicts is almost £110m a year, one report said. That figure, which adds in counseling and treatment for up to 620,000 “problem gamblers,” still doesn’t even account for everything. In fact, some experts believe the number will go far north of the £110m estimate once other costs such as housing, homelessness, welfare and the criminal justice system are factored in. Problem gambling casts a shadow that’s as wide as it is destructive for an industry that’s rapidly growing and evolving in the UK.
For many critics, though, it’s evolving too fast for too few people to handle it. And when all is said and done, mental health programs and gambling-specific treatment centers might not cut it. “[That’s] just one small aspect of the overall cost of gambling addiction to the economy,” the Guardian story warned about addiction costs. “£110m is just the tip of the iceberg.” No matter what statistics and figures the report tallies up, though, a much darker figure looms over everything else: gambling brought in nearly £13b ($15 billion in US dollars) in 2015. When it comes to conversations around gambling, revenue isn’t just the elephant in the room—it’s a Jumanji-sized stampede tearing across the UK.
The easier it is to gamble, the faster it is to ruin lives. For example, fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) have recently come under fire by critics and government officials alike. FOBTs are oftentimes called the “crack cocaine” of gambling in how fast they wreak havoc in gambler’s lives. One Cambridge Independent story on FOBTs indicated that it’s possible to bet up to £100 every 20 seconds on the machines; the high-speed nature of it all makes them particularly addictive to problem gamblers. In other words, you could lose everything before knowing what hit you—or the bottom line of your bank statement.
FOBTs invited a full-scale government review of the gambling industry in England, Scotland and Wales last year. “I have heard from families that have been wrecked by these machines, with wages spent in a matter of minutes and no money left to cover basic bills, rents or mortgages,” the UK’s Labour Party MP David Zeichner told the Independent. It’s a familiar refrain, but it may not be loud enough to drown out the industry’s protests against tighter regulation. As the Guardian story points out, FOBTs alone brought £438m to the UK economy through taxes in 2015. When you’re hauling in numbers like that, it’s easier to turn a blind eye to the sick and suffering, critics argue. If nothing else, the government’s investigation into FOBTs may reveal more about addiction than the need to crack down on gambling.
What Can Be Done?
Bookmakers not only insist that they’re doing everything they can to curb problem gambling, but that their businesses are failing at record rates. The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) even provided people an automated form they could sign and give to their local government officials. Part of the form read: I’m tired of how bookmakers are constantly misrepresented, and I’m concerned about the impact of any further regulation on bookies. Betting shops are closing at a rate of over 100 per year and with that local authorities are losing yet another business rate paying retailer from their high streets. And without bookies, our high streets will continue to suffer a decline in footfall. The last thing the industry needs, the ABB says, is more scrutiny or regulation. The group is also quick to defend FOBTs: “Unlike similar machines in amusement arcades or casinos, gaming machines in bookmakers allow customers to set a limit on the amount they spend or the time they play for,” ABB spokesperson Peter Craske told the Independent. He added that employees in betting shops are specially trained to spot problem gamblers, too.
Critics aren’t buying it, though. For one, the industry is highly self-regulated, meaning many procedures and laws could (and do) get ignored. “I wish they were as quick to send messages warning people to stop [gambling]as they are to send adverts encouraging people to use FOBTs,” one Labour MP told the Guardian. Last year, £162m was spent on gambling ads, which is twice the amount spent just three years earlier. And if that’s not bad enough, lawmakers are also tangling with a spike in gambling among kids. Half a million children between the ages of 11 and 15 gamble every week, one article said. (Alcohol abuse ranks second in the same age group.) While parents wring their hands and lawmakers struggle to keep up with the industry, gambling isn’t going away. It comes down a question of whether people can live with a system that takes revenue and then funnels it right into treatment programs for the very addiction they feed. But for gambling addicts, recovery and hope isn’t just found in the luck of the draw—it’s in the cards for anyone who works for it.