Written By: Maddie Tipping

A gambling addict is tough to spot. There are no physical side effects, no ingested substances and often the loss of a huge sum is often the first signposting moment. This is worsened by the ease of hiding the habit – the BeGambleAware website cites “borrowing money, selling possessions or not paying bills” as key indicators of an addiction.

The psychology behind a gambling addiction is complex, but the BBC conducted an examination through an MRI scan of how the brain processes betting. This investigation revealed that the feeling of winning and anticipating a win generate the same brain activity. In this way, the prospect of winning and actual winning produce the same level of thrill, with only a slightly increased level of satisfaction on winning. This demonstrates why gambling becomes habitual – the enjoyment is not only felt once the player wins but throughout the entire process and this maintains an addiction. This was articulated by Professor David Nutt from Imperial College London who conducted the BBC study, as he stated that “taking part is as activating to a gambler as winning”. With this foundational level of understanding, the image of an individual feeding their money into a slot machine doesn’t seem so alien.  

The effects of this behavioural addiction are vast – one shocking statistic comes from the USA. In 2003, the National Coalition Against Legalised Gambling claimed that the opening of casinos coincided with a rise of 42% in child and domestic abuse within the state. Closer to home, Jeremy Kyle has publicly addressed his gambling addiction. He attributes reaching the £12 000 debt mark as his wake up call. He described his experience in an interview – “it will suck you in… for a lot of people it becomes everything”. He went on to describe the rationale behind not walking away – “you’re conning yourself…that’s the one addiction… that word ‘if’, ‘if’ I have another winner, I can clear all that”.  The all-encompassing nature of the addiction is supported by former addict Peter Harrington’s experience who went as far to say the mind of a problem gambler will start substituting family, friends and a job for other gamblers and casinos

Jeremy Kyle discusses openly his past gambling addiction.

The slogan ‘When the fun stops, stop’ discards the fact that ‘fun’ becomes warped to an individual whose brain pattern has been altered. The aim of the slogan is to draw attention to the link between problem gambling and a negative state of mind, but this relies on someone’s ability to self-regulate. Approaching gambling addiction as a recognised brain disorder challenges this simplification and should make us consider whether a stronger regulatory approach is needed. 

Gambling addiction is also a non-discriminatory problem. Its initial appeal as a vehicle to escape reality means that it defies boundaries of class, race and age. A young person’s stress and stage of brain development makes them just as susceptible as a lonely older person, whose only social interaction is that of a casino. TV or online ads prey on this, as their marketing methods take a catch –all approach.  Among the most controversial TV adverts was the 2014 Ladbrokes campaign which featured the tag line “They are the dreamers, the glory-seekers, the back-page philosophers, the Wednesday night warriors. They are the have-a-go heroes of Saturday afternoon. They are the betting men, and this is the Ladbrokes Life.” This strapline was crafted to glamourize betting by aligning it with ‘warriors’ and victory. Ladbrokes encourages players to extend winning a bet to their wider lives, i.e. they don’t just win a bet, they become a ‘glory seeker’. Despite its humorous tone, this advert reveals a concerning consciousness of the mind-set of addiction. 

Four out of every ten online betters begin doing so from seeing an advert and the 2005 Gambling Act widened the range of legal advertising of betting. 1 per cent of UK adults fit the criteria for problem gambling, compared to 3 per cent of Americans, and this will only increase with the widening accessibility of online gambling. By talking about experiences of addicts- past and present, understanding the cause and effects, positive change can be enforced.

There is good news however. In their 2019 December election manifesto, the Tory party committed to the first review of the 2005 Gambling Act. This review will need to take into account all the challenges of the internet and make sure that the Act is ‘fit for a digital age’. It’ll investigate stake limits, alongside the use of loot boxes and credit cards to fund gambling. Although Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock has committed to it following the recent election of the Conservative party, it has not been made known when this review will start or conclude. However, the think tank Social Market Foundation will be publishing a report with recommendations for the review in Summer 2020. 

It’ll be a mammoth task to police internet gambling, but the review is a step in the right direction in pushing for a solid foundation of preventative measures. It’s a crucial step in tightening advertising regulations that will aid recovering addicts and prevent new ones. Hopefully, the odds will be in their favour.

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Last Update: May 24, 2024