Individuals seeking access to treatment for gambling addiction in the Bristol area have seen a steadily increasing rise over the last few years.
Words: Matthew Light
Kings Court by the Harbourside is home to the Addiction Recovery Agency (ARA): Bristol’s main specialist treatment provider for problem gambling. Since 2008, demand for its services has risen an average 20% annually.
Especially concerning is the percentage of young Bristolians, among whom ARA conducts an outreach programme promoting gambling awareness, admitting to a serious issue. Of young people reached by the sessions, 5% got back in contact seeking advice for pre-existing gambling problems. Of this sample group, up to 6% went on to have more than 24 counselling sessions.
The impact of deregulation
For the betting industry’s critics, such figures are unsurprising. Since the mass deregulation that the 2005 Gambling Act brought in, there have been repeated calls for more control over betting in order to reduce the social harm caused by gambling products and premises.
The most controversial effect of the 2005 Act has been the proliferation of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) across bookmakers. These machines offer instant access to casino games such as roulette or poker and allow punters to bet up to £100 every 20 seconds. “You can easily lose a month’s wage in a lunchbreak,’’ says one recovered addict at the Broadmead Gamblers Anonymous.
Recently there’s been a rising, troubling relationship between the machines and incidents of violence in betting shops, arguably because of frustration. They are gradually dominating gambling’s landscape and despite the many different games available, now consume 54% of all losses. When FOBTs first arrived, profits from customer losses were far more evenly split.
“Services are filling up and demand has been increasing – there’s been a shift even since Christmas, and FOBTs are a big problem,” says Sarah Flourentzou, in charge of gambling treatment at ARA.
Competition between major betting shop chains, meanwhile, has led to shops clustering along high streets, concentrating the availability of terminals into particular areas. While bookmakers now offer a ‘self-exclusion’ scheme (where customers can effectively bar themselves) there’s little to stop an excluded individual from moving on to the shop down the road.
Central Bristol locations are a case in point. In Bedminster there are 11 premises for betting within a short walk, and the Cabot ward boasts eight within a half a mile. Shops can open as early as 8am and close as late as 10pm. On East Street they’re packed tightly among gold shops, pawnbrokers and alcohol vendors, the proximity of which offers further temptation for compulsive gamblers.
Shops are allowed up to four FOBT machines at a time – and this is possible regardless of proof of customer demand. I surveyed Bristol’s betting shops and found the majority on our high streets reach their maximum limit for these terminals.
Public health concerns
Bristol University is home to a leading national expert on pathological gambling and addiction research, Sean Cowlishaw. “Problem gambling in the UK is a significant public health concern, and that most problem gamblers don’t seek treatment for their problem,” he says.
One of Cowlishaw’s most worrying discoveries is that 25% of problem gamblers report a history of suicide attempts. He has also found that people with psychosis are four times more likely to have problems with gambling, and that there’s a clearly established connection with substance abuse.
In 2014, Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy voted for two motions that tried to reduce the maximum FOBT stake from £100 to £2 and increase powers for regulation over FOBTs and betting shops. Neither was successful. Opponents argued, among other things, that insufficient regionally specific information was available. McCarthy also stood at the 2015 general election on a manifesto that included plans to review and revoke betting shop licenses – and if agreed ban FOBTs from vulnerable communities.
This year saw Bristol council renew its gambling policy – as is compulsory under statute every three years. No substantive amendments were made to the pre-existing policy. Changes instead focused on minor document alterations such as paragraph numbering and minute adjustments to terminology.
The council has justified the lack of major review on the basis that the industry’s growth here has been slow. It also states that former mayor George Ferguson was in favour of reducing the maximum FOBT stake. Somewhat inexplicably, the authority’s consultation didn’t include input from local expert Cowlishaw.
More control, more dialogue
Despite the council passing up this opportunity, others believe more can be done. The Campaign For Fairer Gambling is advising the Local Government Association in lobbying over more control for councils around applications and through regulatory powers over licensing objectives.
‘’The problem with these consultations is that the public aren’t openly engaged enough,” says Adrian Parkinson, a former betting industry insider turned whistleblower and spokesperson for the Campaign For Fairer Gambling. “Councils fear the financial might of the bookmakers. We want to return to a pre-2005 gambling landscape.’’
Critics such as Parkinson argue that nationally, since the 2005 Gambling Act, the betting industry has gradually taken a darker turn, becoming more reliant on vulnerable individuals and communities to generate profit.
Gambling addictions can often go unnoticed until far down the line, and can affect more than just the individual. “The problem is, you don’t come home smelling of gambling,” one affected family member says of his father’s struggle.
Bristol has not seen a large increase in betting shop premises since the last statement of policy in 2013. However that may no longer be the main issue as the industry appears to be taking a potentially damaging direction in the form of FOBTs; The British Gambling Prevalence Survey found that the average spend per regular gambler is three times higher for those who use FOBTs. And while more people are seeking help for their problem, experts believe this still does not represent the vast majority who will never turn to counselling services.
If the numbers accessing services are to continue to rise, then at the next opportunity thorough and considerable measures will need to be taken to truly measure the extent of the problem.