A costly addiction

THE Rutland Centre, Ireland’s largest private rehabilitation centre for addiction, is seeing an increase of almost 300% in the numbers undergoing treatment for gambling addiction.

Dr Fiona Weldon, clinical director at the centre, says about 1% to 3% of the general population has a gambling problem.

“About 8% of our clients are presenting with primary gambling addiction. Of that, about 10% would have a cross addiction (a combination of compulsive gambling and alcoholism).”

Dr Weldon says that “all addictions increase during recessionary times. There’s a lot of stress around any financial problems. A lot of people are out of work with time on their hands. There’s also the problem of availability, with gambling online. Availability is something that affects all addictions.”

Young men, aged between 18-25, are coming into the Rutland Centre “with enormous debts, sometimes from €350,000 to half a million. Of course, these people wouldn’t be earning anything like that amount of money. But debts can (accumulate) very quickly. In a lot of the cases, the gambling would have started in the teen years and people end up gambling on things they’re not even interested in.”

Criminal activity is often involved. “As the problem takes hold, people will involve themselves in theft and crime and, depending on what their job is, opportunities to steal will arise. They’ll borrow money from family and friends but will be unable to pay it back. The more the debt increases, the more it feels to the gamblers that the only option is to keep on gambling and have that big win.”

Gamblers are motivated by different reasons. “You’ve got people who are escaping from stress and strain and find gambling very relaxing. If they have a diagnosis of a mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety, gambling can give them distraction and release. Then you have people who are thrill-seeking. They have difficulty tolerating boredom and behave impulsively.”

Dr Weldon says that when people arrive at the Rutland Centre for treatment a lot of them will have made a serious suicide attempt. “This is particularly true for gamblers. They’re a very high risk group for suicide.”

Once a gambler has accepted that he has a problem and attends rehab, “the first step is to work on his beliefs and thinking around how he’s going to solve his debt problem. Very often, it’s about putting in place really long-term plans about how the gambler can stabilise his life.”

Dr Weldon says there needs to be stronger legislation around gambling. “The wide availability of gambling needs to be legislated for. If you look at online gambling, there’s nothing to stop a 15-year-old engaging in that.”

Gamblers typically don’t seek help until they’re in big trouble with fraud. Or they may have accrued massive debts. Tony O’Reilly, a post office manager in his 30s, had amassed debts of over three times his salary when it transpired that €1.7 million was missing from the post office in County Wexford where he worked.

It’s alleged that O’Reilly took massive amounts of money from the Gorey post office to fund his betting habit. When the suspected fraud was uncovered recently, O’Reilly fled to Belfast where he placed a €40,000 bet and won. But the bet alerted authorities as to his whereabouts and he was tracked down by the PSNI. O’Reilly’s father has admitted that his son has a gambling addiction and that his family are seeking help for him to deal with it.

According to reports, O’Reilly’s family issued a statement saying his gambling addiction had ‘spiralled out of control’ and warned people of the perils of phone and online betting which they described as a ‘temptation’.

A report drawn up in the Department of Justice last year during a review of gaming law estimated that there are between 40,000 and 120,000 compulsive gamblers in Ireland. The industry is growing at a fast rate. In 2009, there were 740 betting shops in Ireland. Today, there are 1,248.

Last year, Paddy Power, Ireland’s largest bookmakers, made two-thirds of its €104 million profit from online bets. “That’s the part of the business that is growing,” says Paddy Power, who has expanded into the UK and Australia.

“But people think that during a recession, betting shops thrive. In fact, they don’t. Betting shops, apart from ours, are closing hand over fist. Betting is really a discretionary spend. In general, people bet in accordance with their means. The average stake is down 11% to €18.”

However, Paddy Power’s most recent results show 81% of its profit came from online activities and it made almost as much through its website and mobile phone application in the first six months of this year as it did overall in the first half of 2010. It has an almost 50% rise in customers, who created a 25% increase in online operating profits.

And the customer profile of Paddy Power’s is predominantly male — very few women use betting shops, opting instead to go online. The number of women using the online service has grown, says Paddy Power, but only slightly, and women tend to bet on numbers-based games such as bingo.

And with regard to the proposed large-scale casino in Tipperary, Paddy Power says: “It’s not the kind of thing we’re interested in because the legality is such a grey area. But we all know there are lots of casinos operating around the country. They haven’t been regulated properly. We would welcome regulation. It’s probably a better idea to have a big resort-type of casino than loads of tiny ones dotted around the country.”

Meanwhile, Dr Weldon says that while jobs may be created if the Tipperary casino is built “we know that a certain proportion of people using it will develop a problem. The industry is doing very little at the moment in relation to giving people information about where they should go if they have a gambling problem. In the UK, there’s ‘Gamble Aware’, which has to accompany gambling advertising,” she says.

Gamble Aware is a website with information about all aspects of gambling, encompassing social responsibility.

*www.gamblersanonymous.ie

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