Thursday 24 November 2022

A big rise in gambling addiction?

There’s an eye-catching claim splashed over the front of The Times today under the headline ‘Big rise in gambling addiction’:

The health service will announce tomorrow that it has opened clinics in Southampton and Stoke, adding to a national network of five commissioned in 2019. Figures seen by The Times show that 599 patients have been referred to the service in the past six months, a 42 per cent increase on the same period last year and up 65 per cent from 2020-21.

The figures come from here. ‘Gambling addictions’ rising by 42 per cent in one year is so unlikely that it is worth asking whether these statistics accurately reflect what is going on.

Astute readers will recall the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21 and wonder whether the accompanying restrictions, which included the total shutdown of face-to-face gambling support for months, may have led to the figures for these years being lower than they would otherwise have been. It seem almost certain that they did.

2019/20 would be a better baseline to compare the most recent years to, except that a lot of these clinics didn’t even exist for part or all of that year. This significant fact is hiding in plain sight in the paragraph quoted above:

The health service will announce tomorrow that it has opened clinics in Southampton and Stoke, adding to a national network of five commissioned in 2019.

The whole point of these clinics is to give problem gamblers somewhere to go for face-to-face support. When the NHS Northern Gambling Service was opened in September 2019, Dr Matthew Gaskell said:

“I’m delighted to be opening our new clinic in Manchester. This will help make our service more accessible to people in the North West of England where we know there are thousands who need our support.”

As intended, problem gamblers are using these relatively new facilities. When more clinics are opened in Southampton, Stoke and elsewhere, it will presumably lead to even more people attending a gambling clinic. It will disappointing if they don’t, but it will not be evidence of a ‘big rise in gambling addictions’, although perhaps The Times will portray it as such

The aforementioned Dr Gaskell is quoted by The Times

He said the patients referred to NHS addiction clinics were a “drop in the ocean” of those suffering mental health problems because of problem gambling.

Perhaps so, but it is an increasingly large drop in the ocean as the number of NHS clinics proliferates and word gets around that they exist.

If you want to know whether there has been a rise in problem gambling, you need to look at the problem gambling surveys which have been running since 1999. They show that the rate of problem gambling has been flat and low for over 20 years. According to the latest data

  • the overall headline problem gambling rate as measured by the short form PGSI is statistically stable at 0.3%.

In short, there is a fairly obvious ‘if you built it they will come’ aspect to this story. I suspect that journalists at The Times are smart enough to see this but have had their minds clouded by the paper’s editorial line which resembles a moral crusade (why else would this half-story be on the front page?)

The rest of the article pushes the sports betting angle, with Dr Gaskell making the pointed and remarkably convenient claim that his clinics are “filled with young men in football shirts“. He is not a man averse to hyperbole…

“People start gambling as soon as they wake up in the morning; they’re gambling in the shower, gambling while they’re driving to work. The NHS is picking up the tab.”

The mind boggles at the idea of gambling in the shower. As for the NHS picking up the tab, the government made over £3 billion from gambling duty revenue last year and the industry was willingly paying for gambling treatment services via GambleAware until the puritans at the NHS decided that it could no longer accept this tainted money and passed the bill to the taxpayer.

If ‘gambling addictions’ have really risen by 65 per cent in two years, you have to wonder what the point of ridding the country of fixed odds betting terminals was. Remember them? They were the root of all evil according to dozens of Times articles until April 2019 when they were effectively banned. There were the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’, no less.

How does The Times square its victory over the dreaded FOBTs with the spiralling rates of gambling addiction it is now reporting? Perhaps it is relying on its readers having short memories.


Cross-posted from the Snowdon Substack.

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