We have been working with the great people at CyberSafeIreland to get the message out there to parents about the potential risks of kids learning to gamble through gaming. Check out our recent guest blog on loot boxes in games and what parents need to know. Author: Olwyn Beresford.
My kids are mad about gaming so, as the games industry increases its focus on in-game purchases as a revenue source, I’ve had to agree some new rules with them around spending. My focus was initially a budgetary one, but it’s hard to ignore the negative news stories about the manipulative monetisation of gaming that targets children and the convergence between the worlds of gaming and gambling. The most controversial in-game purchase today, with links to both compulsive spending and gambling, is a loot box. I took a closer look at this particular purchase and discovered that there are valid reasons to be concerned.
What is a loot box?
A loot box is a consumable item offered for purchase in a video game or app that contains mystery or randomised content. It could contain any in-game merchandise from cosmetic items, like “skins” which change the appearance of a character or weapon, to functional items that impact gameplay and may allow for faster progress through the game. They are known by different names in different games(ref1) but whether they are called crates, packs, keys, chests, card bundles, etc. the concept remains the same. Figures from the UK Gambling Commission for 2018 show that 31% of young people, aged 11-16, have accessed loot boxes in a video game or app. Loot boxes usually have a small price attached (unless purchased in bulk), but you can buy them any number of times so it is possible to spend hundreds of euros, even in a small game.
Why should parents be concerned about this particular in-game purchase?
Loot boxes are considered to be a “game of chance” within video games because when you make a purchase you do not know the value or rarity of the items contained. It requires no player skill to access a loot box and the outcome is random so they function similarly to other games of chance, like scratch cards or slot machines, in many ways. Since the end of 2017, Apple has required that mobile apps publish the “odds” of receiving certain types of items in loot boxes before they can be purchased. Google recently announced a similar policy that will take effect from September 1st 2019.
When children purchase these mystery items they can experience the same emotions that real world gamblers do: reward anticipation, highs and lows depending on the contents received, spending more and more in the hope that they will get a better outcome next time, and so on. Children are likely to believe common gambling myths, e.g. that their luck will have to change if they keep purchasing, and they can end up spending more in an effort to recoup money already spent. In gambling terms they are “chasing their losses” looking for that valuable skin or in-game item that will make their previous spending worthwhile.
There is an additional concern with some games, e.g. CS:GO, Dota 2, PUBG, that allow for items received from loot boxes to be transferred outside the game via Valve's Steam platform. These items then become a virtual currency themselves because it is possible to gamble using skins in place of real money or to sell skins for cash on unregulated gambling and trading sites. Gambling with skins is one way for underage gamblers to bet on esports (professional gaming) events and it is easy for tech-savvy children to navigate the steps required to do so. In a 2018 survey(ref 2) 27% of UK children, aged 13-18, said that they had heard of skin gambling and 10% of children had gambled with skins. Children surveyed commented that their parents were unaware of their gambling activity.
Are loot boxes really gambling?
Opinions vary and there is still much to learn in this area but research studies(ref 3) have shown a significant link exists between loot box spending and problem gambling. One recent study(ref 4) also found that gamers who are drawn to loot boxes bear a closer resemblance to problem gamblers than they do to problem gamers. This is very worrying at a time when gambling rates among children are rising at an alarming rate(ref 5).
A number of countries, including China, Japan, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands have included loot boxes under their gambling legislation. Some of these countries have set rules around their design or availability, while others banned them altogether. This has forced games manufacturers to modify their games for these markets. The US is also considering a complete ban on the sale of loot boxes in games and all games with pay to win purchases(ref 6). Games manufacturers will lobby hard to avoid this, given how lucrative these purchases are. To date Ireland has chosen not to restrict the sale of loot boxes in games but did sign an international declaration last year, alongside 15 other countries, expressing concern about gambling in video games.
Advice for parents
Loot boxes are just one way in which children are exposed to gambling concepts through gaming today. With problem gambling on the rise it is vital that parents talk to their gamers about gambling risks so that they can develop a healthy relationship with gambling in later life. Our Gambling Guide for Gamers provides more information to help parents navigate this area.
It has been estimated that the cost of problem gambling to the UK taxpayer is £1.2 billion per year (£18.17 per head of population). If similar figures were reflected in the Irish population, the cost to the Irish taxpayer, from problem gambling, would be in the region of €98 million (£87 million). Up until this year, the tax revenue from Betting Duty in Ireland was only in the region of €50 million. A doubling of the Betting Duty rate (to 2%) in Budget 2019, means that revenue should increase to roughly €100 million. You may be thinking that this balances the books. Unfortunately, in true Irish fashion, this is not the case. According to the Horse Racing and Greyhound Act, the Minister shall pay into the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund, out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas, "an amount, determined by the Revenue Commissioners, equivalent to the revenue paid into the Exchequer in the year . . . from excise duty on off-course betting". This means, in practice, that the entire tax-take from Betting Duty is ring-fenced in favour of Horse Racing Ireland (80%) and The Greyhound Racing Board (20%). Horse Racing Ireland and The Greyhound Racing Board are, themselves, gambling operators, through Tote betting. (Just in case you're thinking that these entities 'only' receive a paltry €50 million every year, you'll be happy to know that in 2018 the Fund was topped up with an additional €30 million from general exchequer funding in 2018.) As the Horse Racing & Greyhound Act has not been amended, this means that the entire increase in revenue, obtained from the doubling of Betting Duty, is due to end up in the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund.
Meanwhile, the accumulated government spend on reducing gambling-related harm in Ireland, since the inception of the State is zero.
In September 2018, Minister for Health, Simon Harris stated: “I don’t believe as a country we have made nearly enough progress in relation to how we tackle the issue of addiction in relation to gambling,” and that he would speak to Catherine Byrne, the junior health minster responsible for addiction services, about making more money available for gambling treatment.
In February of this year, after the release of prevalence data into gambling and problem gambling in Ireland, Minister of State, Catherine Byrne, stated: "For the small percentage of people for whom gambling is a problem, we need measures to reduce problem gambling and its impact on individuals and their families". Commenting on the same survey, Minister of State, David Stanton, stated: "This is especially important for the small percentage of people for whom gambling can negatively affect significant areas of their lives including their mental and physical health, employment, finances and relationships with others.”
In October 2018, Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, stated that the social cost of problem gambling was one of the factors that caused him to raise betting tax. However, despite submissions by this organisation and the Rutland Centre, along with pressure from the Independent Alliance, no allocation of funding from Betting Duty or elsewhere has yet been made, for services which work to prevent and treat gambling addiction. In November 2018, Minister Donohoe also stated: "While problem gambling can result in the problem gambler, and their family, bearing the severest of economic and of course personal costs, the social costs of problem gambling can extend to their employers and to public institutions in the health, welfare and justice systems, such costs ultimately borne by taxpayers. This needs to be better reflected within the betting duty regime."
In July 2017, Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, stated that gambling "gives rise to people becoming addicted, impoverished and unwell as a consequence" and that "Legislation in this area is long overdue". I would put it to the Taoiseach, that funding for frontline services is also long, long overdue.
While it is gratifying to hear acknowledgements of the harm caused by problem gambling in Ireland and heartwarming to hear that government representatives would like to see funding being made available to help people affected by gambling related harm - no meaningful action has yet been taken by this government that would in any way help the tens of thousands of people currently suffering.
Enough talk. It's time for the Irish Government to put their money where their mouth is and begin funding prevention and treatment services.
CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
A Guest Blog Post from Mark. We would like to thank Mark for making contacting and offering to share his story. The original post can be found on Mark's blog: https://marksrecovery.blogspot.com/
**Please note that GamStop, which Mark mentions in this post, is only available to UK residents. GamStop is a multi-operator self-exclusion scheme - the type of system which is badly needed in Ireland and which should be a priority of the proposed Gambling Regulatory Authority, when it is established**
"My name is Mark and i’m a compulsive gambler. My last bet was April 2nd 2019. The day of April 2nd was a massive turning point in my life, it was the day I finally admitted to my long term girlfriend, who is the mother of my two children, and to my parents that I was a compulsive gambler and needed help. The weekend prior was when I finally said to myself I’ve had enough, I had been betting for 14 years and it had beaten me so badly that I was a mess mentally and financially. Although no one knew that because I was an expert at hiding it.
I started gambling like almost anyone in the UK or Ireland, The Grand National. The one day of the year where it seems like every man, woman and child has a bet on. The biggest horse race in the world. That and those glorious holidays spent in Portrush playing the 2p machines. I don’t for one second blame those experiences for my gambling problem, they are just my first memories of gambling.
Once I turned 18 I opened an account with Blue Sq and that started my online sports gambling journey. Friday nights were spent betting on Wolverhampton all weather horse racing and the Dutch and French 2nd Divisions. All harmless fun, controlled gambling, small stakes. I was still working part time at this stage, left school that summer and gambling was not in the way. Once I got my full time job though that all changed.
The first time I could put my finger on when my gambling changed was the first day of the 2008/2009 football season. I’d been working full time for about 3 years and my gambling was still under control. I gambled, but it wasn’t causing me any issues. That Friday I walked into a Paddy Power and decided instead of placing a load of stupid football bets for £1 or £2 I’d pick three teams for the season and do a £20 treble each week. Sheffield United, Leicester City and Leeds United were the picks. Of course, the first weekend it landed (the only time it landed all season I think) and my betting changed from that moment. I genuinely can’t remember the odds but I must have lifted over £100 from that £20 stake and after that staking £1 or £2 just wasn’t appealing. What was the point in that when I could stake £20 and win more. From that moment my gambling started to get out of control over time. Then came the loans, the credit cards, the payday loans.
I knew early on I had a problem. I self excluded from places over the years but never really wanted to quit. I was getting in debt but was able to continue with my lifestyle as I was living at home. I remember one day going to a cheque cashing place where I could write a cheque for £100, dated on my next payday, and they’d give me £90 there and then. I did two cheques for going out that weekend (and a couple of bets on the Aintree Festival) walked straight to the bookies and had the £180 on Denman to win the Aintree Bowl at even money. He suffered the first fall of his career. Back I went to the cheque cashing place for another £90.
I moved out and into my friends house for a year and the gambling continued, although I had less money to gamble with. My credit rating was taking a battering but I was young and didn’t really care. Then I met my current girlfriend in the February and we moved in together that September. The gambling continued and was getting worse. I made the smart move to get a second job to supplement my gambling…...at a greyhound track. I’d be earning about £20 a night but gambling £60 or £80. Insanity. We had our first child in April 2012 and not long after she found out I’d be gambling some of the money we’d saved. It wasn’t a lot of money, but she was pissed (rightfully so). I managed to talk my way out of it and that was when I became really good at hiding things. She took control of the rent money and any money for our son so that was never in danger, thankfully. We had our daughter in 2016 but the gambling still continued.
I would go through phases where I’d stop altogether for months on end, a year at one point, but I’d always go back to it thinking I was in control but I never was. When gambling I’d deposit £10, lose it, deposit another £10, lose it, rinse and repeat until all my money was gone. If I won it just meant I could gamble longer. It was never about the money. I thought it was, but really the money was the fuel that could keep me gambling longer. Most months I was skint a few days after payday and couldn’t gamble until the next payday.
At the end of 2016 I got an overdraft of £2k and gambled it all on soccer all around the world. Woke up and started gambling in Asia, moved across the globe into the Middle East, Africa, Europe and then fell asleep betting on South American football. It was out of control. Betting on Egyptian football on Xmas Day a particular lowlight.
Coming into 2018 I was in a “good place” with gambling, or so I thought. I was Matched Betting which was a way of making money via bookmakers offers. It worked well for a few months but it all went to shit in the Summer of 2018. Matched Betting introduced me to the casino side of things and I lost £3.5k on roulette. I’ll not go into the ins and outs of how I had that sort of money, lets just say I didn’t and I found a way to deposit via direct debit and of course those all bounced. Luckily Paddy Power rewarded me by making me a VIP customer after that. So I was chasing big style and getting free £50 bonuses each week from them but I could never get enough money to stop, because no amount was ever going to be enough. Their offers of Money Back if Horse X wins are normally £10 max refund, I was getting £100 max refund. Eventually I was running out of ways to get money and when I started to bet less with Paddy Power they removed my VIP status. I did win £1000 on an NFL bet and lost the lot on roulette the next week. Another lowlight.
2019 I could feel myself struggling. My life was consumed with gambling or working out how to get money to gamble and then how I was going to pay people back what I owed them. I was in a bad place, I was a bad person, lying, angry, grumpy but still no one knew the truth.
Then came the weekend prior to April 2nd. I had just been paid and deposited some money into my Bet365 account and managed to get my balance up to £910 on the Friday 29th March. I should say by this stage I was fully gambling on tennis. Not match winner, that took too long, generally set winner or next game winner as that was quicker. Now this £910 would have cleared some of my urgent debts to allow me to continue on gambling. All I had to do was withdraw, and I was going to…...once I got it up to a nice round £1000. As you can guess I lost the lot. £300-£400 on Benoit Paire was one of the worst hits but I was gambling like a mad man. That was how I bet when I had winnings, the stakes got out of control. By the time I was leaving work at 6pm on the Friday the whole £910 was gone. I was betting on ATP, Challenger, ITF, any tennis that was on I was betting on it. Back in the day I remember betting on a tennis match where they had one ball. Still a story that brings a smile to my face if I’m honest. That Friday night I deposited whatever I had left in and managed to win back a good chunk of the money, but it still wasn’t enough. It still wasn’t what I had before. So the whole weekend went like that, up and down, up and down. I went to a family dinner and sat betting on my phone the whole night. That’s how my life has been the last number of years, I’m present at gatherings, or nights out but my mind is deep in my phone gambling away not giving a shit about anyone.
Eventually the money ran out that weekend. I was a mess. I could have actually made it work financially and gotten through the month but mentally I was gone. I could tell my brain had put me into a nosedive and the only way this was all ending was in disaster. Maybe not this month, or this year but I was been flown towards rock bottom.
I sat down on the Monday and wrote out everything that I owed, who I owed it to, a budget going forward. It was grim enough reading, £18k in the hole. The money wasn’t the issue, it was how it was making me feel, the time I've been wasting. I found out when and where the nearest GA Meeting was to me and wrote that down too. So I found a set of balls and on the Tuesday I told my girlfriend. My attitude was that life can’t be any worse for me than it currently is. I was a mess, I cried, I honestly expected her to tell me to get out and I wouldn’t have blamed her, but she was amazing. She was angry obviously, but she was so supportive. Then I called my parents round and told them. They were disappointed, confused but also really supportive. Then the next day I told my closest friends who were again all really supportive. I owe them some money too and they’ve been great about setting up a payment plan to pay that back.
I registered for GAMStop and self excluded online for 5 years which has taken the avenue of online gambling away from me. A vital step if online is your vice.
I then went to my first GA Meeting on Wednesday 3rd April. The time doesn’t suit me for that, Monday at 9pm is my meeting but I felt I needed to get to one ASAP. I don’t know what I expected GA to be but it’s one of the most amazing groups I’ve ever found. It’s a dumping ground for all my shit and it’s a place where I can listen to other people’s stories. Without sounding sexist, it’s something a lot of men could do with outside of addiction, a place to talk about life and how they are feeling. I take a 50 mile round trip every Monday to get there. When I was gambling if I had to travel 50 miles to get internet to gamble you can guarantee I’d have traveled every day. When I leave a meeting, I’m buzzing, for all the right reasons. I’m a lifer when it comes to GA now and i’m fine with that.
I’ve been clean for 10 weeks now, and I've had no urges to gamble. My life is amazing, it always was but I was too wrapped up in my addiction to notice. I have an amazing girlfriend and two amazing children along with my parents who are absolutely fantastic. My friends are another support network I couldn’t do without now.
I’m also a member of the problem gambling sub on Reddit and they run a weekly meeting via Skype every Wednesday which is becoming part of my weekly routine (they are also adding an additional one on a Tuesday).
Recovery is now my focus along with my family. The debt can be managed, stopping gambling is one day at a time, but the main focus of my recovery will be fixing my character defects, helping others, being open and honest to people and not being a selfish asshole.
I have no issues with the gambling industry or people who gamble, I just know that I am unable to gamble as it ends in disaster. I feel there should be more discussion around problem gambling and the industry should be putting more money into helping problem gamblers and to help identify problem gamblers. It’s a fine line though, as I know if a bookie told me they felt I had a problem and wouldn’t accept a bet I’d have been angry and just went somewhere else. You need to be ready for recovery to fully embrace it. I never was until April 2nd. For the people in recovery we need to be ready to help those that get to the stage where they are ready for recovery. We are the ones who these people will come to rely on as we’ve been through it, you can tell when talking to someone who hasn’t had a gambling addiction they just don’t understand. Over the coming years I think there will be a significant rise in people looking for help with problem gambling.
For now though, for me, my next bet won’t be about the money I lose, I’ll lose my girlfriend and children as well and that’s not a bet that’s worth making."
I am delighted to release our Annual Report for 2017 (opens in a new window).
Special thanks to the Community Foundation for Ireland for funding the development of this report.
Key Achievements in 2017 (summarised):
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our service-users, volunteers, funders, friends and supporters and wish all of you a happy and healthy 2019.
CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
The recent fine by the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC), of Paddy Power Betfair, for failures to protect customers with gambling problems, highlights the pressing need for gambling regulation in Ireland. In the last year, the UKGC has handed out just over £15.5 million in fines to gambling companies, licensed to operate there, for similar breaches. Many of these companies are also licensed to operate in Ireland - where we have no regulator. I shudder to think what types of breaches are occurring in Ireland, in the absence of any regulation. If the allegations, made by heartbroken family members, who regularly contact our helpline service, are anything to go by - sharp practices by gambling operators are prevalent in the Irish market.
The Government have failed to progress Fine Gael's 2013 Gambling Control Bill, even to the First Stage (of 11). They have also failed to honour their commitment under the National Policy Framework for Children & Young People (2014 - 2020), which states that "the Government commits to take appropriate measures to protect young people from gambling-related risks".
The recent increase in Betting Duty was an ideal opportunity for the Government to allocate funding to the treatment and prevention of problem gambling in Ireland, for the first time - and, yet, no funding allocation was announced by the Minister for Finance. In fact, the only beneficiary of the increase will be the Horse Racing and Greyhound Fund, which, to date, has received €1.2 billion (since 2001). Meanwhile, a recent study by Professor Colin O'Gara, found that only one of the HSE's nine CHO regions provided adequate supports to people affected by problem gambling. The HSE, in fact, don't even mention the word 'gambling' in their Service Plan.
There is an urgent need for interim funding for the prevention and treatment of problem gambling in Ireland. The Gambling Control Bill outlines a Social Fund, which will fulfil this role, but, based on the lack of progress of the Bill, to date, and the snail's pace with which the Public Health Alcohol Bill progressed, I will not be holding my breath for that Fund to come online. Our Government must acknowledge the harm that is caused by problem gambling; to the individual, family, community and at a societal level. The tens of thousands of people in Ireland experiencing gambling-related harm need - and deserve - immediate action.
CEO Problem Gambling Ireland
A few weeks ago, we sent our pre-budget submission, in collaboration with The Rutland Centre, to Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, and the members of the Finance Committee.
In it, we detailed the urgent need for statutory funding of problem gambling services in Ireland. At the time of writing, there is no statutory funding stream for problem gambling research, prevention or treatment. It's also worth noting that the word 'gambling' doesn't appear once in the HSE's Service Plan.
The submission urges the Minister for Finance to increase Betting Duty to 2%, from the current 1% rate. Those of you of a similar age to me (46) will remember when Betting Duty was 20%, then 10%, then 5%, then 2%. Returning the rate to 2% would bring in an additional €50 million to the exchequer. This could be used to fund numerous state services, as well as developing a dedicated fund for problem gambling services.
Here are some of the main points from the submission:
If you want to see state funding of problem gambling services in Ireland, please consider contacting your TD over the coming weeks. Contact details for all TDs are available here.
When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a camping and caravan park in Lahinch, Co. Clare. In the office, they kept a visitors' book, where the occasional guest would leave comments on their stay - like a stone-age version of Trip Advisor. One rainy day (of which there were many), my brother and I, bored out of our skulls, decided to read through the visitors' book. It made for pretty tedious reading, until we came across the following inscription: "It was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor. And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there'. Both of us were massive Bowie fans and instantly recognised the quote as coming from his 1972 track 'Five Years'. The story goes that Bowie had a dream that he would be dead within five years and that this impacted on his behaviour through much of the '70s (including his refusal to get on a plane). Just seeing this quote, brightened our day. We felt a special bond with the rain-soaked suffering of this long-gone tourist.
Five years ago, this week (July 15th 2013), Fine Gael Minster for Justice, Alan Shatter, published the Heads of the Gambling Control Bill. It is a progressive piece of legislation, which has the capacity to revolutionise how the gambling industry in Ireland does its business, how government regulates that business and how government and NGOs prevent and minimise gambling-related harm.
So, in the intervening period, what progress has been made? In a nutshell: none. Fine Gael have continued to be the largest party in government and have had a Fine Gael Minister for Justice, the entire time. You might think that the opposition parties have been holding things up - but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Fianna Fail resubmitted the government's own legislation, calling it the Gambling Control Bill 2018, earlier this year, and it has passed to second stage. The only minor changes to the original Fine Gael legislation related to a levy on gambling industry turnover. This is because opposition parties are not allowed to introduce taxes, without permission ( a 'Money Order') from the government.
When asked, last year, about the delay in progressing their own Bill, the Minister of State with responsibility for gambling, David Stanton, stated, : "it will require some significant updating to take account of developments since 2013". This is a cop-out. There have been no radical changes to the gambling environment since 2013. The 2013 Bill, if enacted today, would be light-years ahead of the current legislation (1929 Totalisator Act, 1931 Betting Act, 1956 Gaming & Lotteries Act). In its current format, the 2013 Bill is already more progressive than legislation in operation, at present, in the UK. The 2013 Bill is perfectly adequate, in its current form, to be enacted - and could always be amended, as new developments in the gambling sector arise.
Our most recent piece of gambling legislation (1956) pre-dates the establishment of Teilifís Éireann by 5 years. Just think about that for a second. It harks back to a time when our nation didn't even have a national television broadcaster. And the Minister is using minor technological changes as an excuse not to progress legislation.
When I talk to problem gambling service providers from other jurisdictions, they don't believe me when I tell them that it is still perfectly legal for a child of any age to place a bet at the Tote, in any race track in Ireland. They don't believe me when I tell them that slot machines, which are in operation in countless towns and villages in Ireland, are actually illegal (and that nobody enforces the law). Most Irish people would struggle to believe that the current maximum legal stake in an amusement arcade is sixpence, or that the current maximum legal payout is ten shillings. Would you believe me if I told you that the entire tax-take from Betting Duty (roughly €50 million per year) goes to the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund - while the State has never (ever) put so much as one cent into problem gambling services, or even acknowledged that gambling addiction is a public health issue? [It's worth noting that the 2018 budget for the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund was €80,000,000. This means that, even if you don't gamble, you're still paying for it]
Sometimes I think that our Fine Gael-lead government have been digging out their old Bowie LPs. Perhaps they take inspiration from that immortal opening line: "Pushing through the market square, so many mothers crying. News had just come over, we've got five years left to die in". Maybe they believe that, if they let the Gambling Control Bill fester for long enough, the issues will just go away. The bad news, though, is that Bowie's premonition was wrong. He survived long beyond those five years.
While those of us campaigning for the enactment of fit-for-purpose gambling legislation, want it now - we are prepared to fight for as long as it takes. Ministries change. Governments come and go. That which remains constant is the harm caused by gambling products and services and the impact that it has on individuals, families, communities and the wider society.
As we head towards another General Election. Please consider raising this issue with your local TD. This is the most effective form of lobbying in Ireland. 1 in 10 of us will experience gambling-related harm in our lifetime, either through our own gambling, or that of a loved one.
CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
Do you want to help support people affected by problem gambling?
Please share this post and consider making a donation.
In January 2016, I set up the website, www.problemgambling.ie. The aim was to provide a resource for people affected by gambling-related harm in Ireland, that was independent of the gambling industry. Our website traffic has been steadily growing, along with emails, texts and calls to our helpline. Yesterday, as Gamble Aware Ireland closed down, they redirected their website traffic to our site (with our consent). We expect to see a substantial increase in calls over the coming months.
In addition to the website and helpline service, we also provide outreach services, in the form of talks, workshops and training, nationwide. Our goal is to have at least one problem gambling specialist providing outreach, counselling and group facilitation services in each county.
Currently, we do not have a core funder, to cover the cost of a full-time helpline service. This means that, at present, we can only provide a 'call-back' service (as I am unable to take calls while I'm with counselling clients or delivering outreach). Our fundraising goal for 2018 is €96,000. This would cover the cost of two full-time staff to provide a full-time helpline and outreach service. It would also be used to cover travel and other related costs on the outreach service.
When I tell people what I do for a living, someone will usually say: 'You should get the bookies to pay for that'. And, of course there is a logic to that sentiment: the industry that creates the addictive product should pay to clean up 'their mess'. At a superficial level, this kind of makes sense. The problem with this approach, though, is that addiction services end up working for an industry that they are (or should be) in direct conflict with. International research has shown that between 40% and 60% of gambling industry profits come from people with gambling problems. There is no business in the world that would willingly exclude half of its customers.
Pope Francis recently said: “Gambling companies finance campaigns to care for the pathological gamblers that they create. And the day that the weapons industry finances hospitals to care for the children mutilated by their bombs, the system will have reached its pinnacle.” Scrape the surface and the conflict of interest is quite clear.
The Irish Government does not have a funding stream for problem gambling services. The HSE Service Plan does not mention the word 'gambling' once. Our proposal (in collaboration with the Rutland Center) that a portion of the Betting Duty, which brings in roughly €50 million per year, could be allocated to problem gambling services (instead of the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund) was unsuccessful.
In short, we need your help.
A monthly donation of €10 per month from 800 people (or €5 per month from 1600 people) would have a radical impact on our ability to support the thousands of people in Ireland who are affected by gambling-related harm, as well as helping us to deliver preventative interventions to at-risk groups (children and young people, in particular).
In Ireland, 1 in 10 of us will be affected by gambling-related harm in our lifetimes. Half of the people who contact our service are family members in distress.
If you would like to help support people affected by problem gambling in Ireland, you can donate here: https://www.problemgambling.ie/donate.html
Barry Grant, CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
Problem Gambling Ireland is a registered charity. RCN: 20154738
A few months ago, my wife and I went on a research trip to a couple of amusement arcades in Tramore. I wanted to get a feel for the experience of sitting at a 'one-armed bandit' for a while. Despite that fact that I grew up on the Meath Road in Bray (100 metres from the prom) and, later, moved to Lahinch in my teens, the gambling sections of the arcades had never held any appeal for me. I would play video games or hang out with my friends as they pumped their pocket-money into poker machines on wintry west-coast nights. While I developed many unhealthy habits in my teens, gambling wasn't one of them.
So, we gave ourselves a 20 quid limit each and set about playing some of the machines (poker and slots). As I came to my final 10 cent stake on one of the slot machines, five "7s" appeared before my eyes. I had won the princely sum of €75 (much to the disdain of the poor woman beside me). We promptly left the building and our 'free money' paid for dinner.
As an addiction counsellor, working with clients who have gambling problems, I always ask about a 'Big Win' that stands out in their minds. For some people it can be tens of thousands, for others it can be in the hundreds. For some, it is the time they turned 50 pence into £10 at the race-track as a young child, The 'Big Win' is important as it is often the 'evidence' (or 'logic') that continues to drive the person to gamble, even when they know, deep down, that they cannot gamble their way out of the financial (and/or emotional) hole they are in.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is considered to be one of the most effective treatment approaches for problem gambling, focuses, in part, on disputing irrational beliefs. So, for example, if a person was getting treatment for anxiety or panic attacks, and they had an intense fear of fainting in public places (this is very common), the therapist might explain that this is impossible as fainting is caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, whereas the Fight or Flight response causes blood pressure to rise. Quite often, by empowering the person with the knowledge that fainting is not a realistic scenario, anxiety levels can be reduced.
Unfortunately, with gambling, the person usually has hard, indisputable evidence, that gambling their way out of difficulty is a viable option. They have done it (to some extent) in the past. They have clear memories of the 'Big Win' along with other wins and 'winning streaks'. The fact that it is extremely unlikely to play out that way, gets overridden by this 'evidence' - especially when a person is desperate, anxiety levels are high and their ability to think clearly is impaired (as it is for all of us in stressful situations). The 'Big Win' also gives that sweet hit of dopamine (the same neurotransmitter that is released when using cocaine). Just like with cocaine, and other drugs, a tolerance develops and you can find yourself needing to gamble more frequently and with larger amounts of money.
If we go back to my measly €75 jackpot on the one-arm bandit, it certainly isn't anything to write home about. However, it was a payout at odds of 750/1. I now have 'evidence', stored in my memory for all time, that it is possible for me to turn 10 cent into €75. 'Logically', this means that I have the ability to turn €1 into €750 or €10 into €7500 . . . and so on. If I were to combine that 'logic' with an emotionally aroused state (stress/anxiety), where I am less likely to be able to control my impulses and make rational decisions - along with a potentially addictive, dopamine-producing activity, like gambling - it's pretty easy to see how I might start thinking that this could be the answer to some (or all) of my problems.
Does this mean that the 'Big Win' will keep a person gambling problematically forever? Of course not. The reality is that a person with a gambling problem has, invariably, had many wins along the way. Unfortunately, one of the things that separates people with gambling problems from non-problematic gamblers, is the person's inability to walk away with their winnings. This needs to be the focus of the conversation - because this is where 'logic' goes out the window. When a person is chasing their losses, they have an overwhelming need to get their money back. Unfortunately, the same person will usually gamble away their winnings, because they see it as 'free money' or 'the bookie's money'. Usually, clients will have experienced countless incidents of this. I always ask clients, 'What are the chances that you would leave the bookies shop (or casino/arcade), if you won enough money to clear all of your debts?". The answer is consistently: 'Practically zero'. This is because a problem gambler is not addicted to winning money - they are addicted to the gambling experience (which only occasionally involves winning money) . Having money just allows the person more time to get that lovely dopamine hit and self-sooth from Life's problems.
If you find yourself chasing that 'Big Win' and the feelings that came with it, just remember that money is the least valuable thing you can gamble with. A gambling problem puts your mental/physical health and relationships at risk. If you are concerned about your gambling and the impact that it is having on your life, don't suffer in silence. Help is available.
Barry Grant, CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
How many lies have you told today? How many lies have you told so that you could gamble today? How many lies have you told to keep your gambling hidden from the people around you….your partner, children, parents, brother, sister, friend, team-mate, colleague, employer, the bank, the credit union? How many lies have you told yourself? Maybe you went to sleep last night and your mind was frantic with thoughts of how you could keep things going or believing that, tomorrow, you could have a big win and everything would be ok? Maybe you woke up and those same thoughts were still there, along with a sick feeling in your stomach?
The opportunity to gamble is all around us and technological advances mean that we can gamble in all sorts of ways 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Most people can enjoy an occasional bet but for others there is a downward spiral and what started out with a ‘harmless’ bet ends with financial, psychological and social devastation.
The progression from recreational gambling to problem gambling generally happens in 4 phases:
The first phase ‘winning’ begins with social gambling during which, at some point, the individual experiences a big win. The excitement of the win provides a psychological ‘hit’ and winning is seen as easy.
As the gambling becomes more frequent, the law of averages takes over and the person enters the ‘losing’ phase. Some people develop insight and stop gambling completely or return to having an occasional bet. Others are unable to control their gambling and problems develop as it becomes a priority over family, friendship, work, education and other aspects of their lives.
As the gambling behaviour becomes more prevalent, the third phase ‘chasing’ begins when the person focuses on chasing their losses, gambling more and more frequently in an attempt to win back previous losses. Problem gamblers might take on additional work in order to fund their gambling or pay gambling debts. They may borrow from family or friends, get loans, steal and in other ways exploit family members, friends and colleagues. The individual often has feelings of guilt, shame and increased anxiety but the gambling continues.
The fourth phase ‘desperation’ leaves the individual feeling hopeless. The individual has tried to gamble their way out of a desperate financial situation but failed. Feelings of fear, isolation, depression and guilt become overwhelming and suicide attempts are common. Many problem gamblers continue to gamble, even in the desperation phase but the thrill of the action is sought rather than the money.
The negative impact problem gambling can have on people’s lives has been highlighted recently in the media with the publication of Declan Lynch and Tony O’Reilly’s book ‘Tony 10’ and Baz Ashmawy’s documentary ‘All Bets Are Off’. Many problem gamblers describe how gambling becomes a priority over everyone and everything else in their lives and the preoccupation with gambling brings a feeling of loss of control. The consequences can be devastating for the individual, the family unit and the wider social circle. Family members of problem gamblers describe feeling ashamed, hurt, helpless, afraid, isolated, angry, confused and distrustful. They often struggle to understand how an otherwise rational person can have behaved so irrationally. Many relationships are unable to survive the financial, psychological and emotional fallout and the family unit may break down.
Problem gambling behaviour can frequently go unnoticed. Unlike other addictions, there are no physical signs that something is wrong - no needle marks, no smell of alcohol, no staggering home. Also frequent gambling brings an occasional win and this facilitates the secrecy and can strengthen the level of denial. In my work as a psychotherapist and having completed a number of research studies on the issue of problem gambling, the hidden nature of this addiction is clear. Despite the growing numbers of people experiencing difficulty with their own or a family member’s gambling behaviour, the number of people presenting for counselling treatment is relatively low. The secrecy involved also means that unfortunately the illness is generally well-advanced before help is sought.
Recovery from problem gambling is not easy but it can and does happen. There are a number of services available to help people work towards recovery which are listed in the ‘Resources’ section of this website. Psychotherapy is one such option. Psychotherapy provides clients with the opportunity to explore any issues or problems that they are experiencing in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental and confidential environment.
In my work with clients, the therapeutic relationship is key and the establishment of a strong working alliance with each client based on empathy, mutual trust and respect is vital. For me, the work with someone presenting with problem gambling behaviour requires an open, empathic relationship which is non-judgmental while also strongly challenging the addictive behaviour. The work involves slowing down and calming the frantic thinking, helping the client gain an awareness of how their behaviour is impacting their lives and the lives of the people around them, and supporting the client so that they themselves can confront reality. Clients often describe how losing the need to lie can bring huge relief, a sense of freedom and peace of mind.
While the addictive behaviour needs to be addressed, I also support clients in looking behind the gambling to who they were before the addictive behaviour began and try to identify and explore the issues that led to the spiral into addiction. We generally find that gambling filled some sense of emptiness and part of recovery is finding new, healthy ways to fill that void. As the therapy progresses, we look beyond the gambling and reflect on the opportunities that recovery might bring as the client rediscovers (or maybe discovers for the first time) the life they want to live.
Acceptance of responsibility is an important part of the process of recovery. Change is supported when the client is able to accept what happened in the past and begin to focus on today, taking responsibility for present day decisions and actions. This concept of living in the day is central to the philosophy of the twelve step program of GA. GA is an important tool in recovery and clients are encouraged to participate in their meetings.
Problem gambling behaviour thrives on lies and secrecy and the further into the illness the bigger and the more frequent the lies and the greater the destruction. So if your gambling behaviour is becoming a concern or has gotten out of control, if you are chasing losses or feeling desperate, what would it be like to break that secrecy? What would it be like to not feel the need to lie? What would it be like to talk to someone honestly, open up about your distress and begin to work towards recovery?
Marie Lawlor is a Psychotherapist, based in Dublin 2. Marie's contact details are available here
Barry Grant, Addiction Counsellor, Founder.