Councillor Annette Christie argues that it is time to take a public health approach to reducing gambling harms.

Glasgow, as indeed many other cities across the country, has had a longstanding problem with gambling. This problem has always been somewhat hidden, with the high street bookmakers tending to focus their attention in our most disadvantaged communities, but with new technologies and the advancement of digital media in recent years online gambling has increased dramatically. During the COVID-19 pandemic we have all become more aware of public health issues and society’s collective responsibility to respond to it. Even in the midst of lockdown, with people confined to their homes, gambling related harm has become more concerning and the risk and exposure to gambling harms is on the increase.

People across the country have been advised to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19. That of course is the right thing to do but nonetheless many of us are worried about our jobs and finances. We may feel anxious about our health, or the health of family and friends. We’re bored, lonely, frustrated and often feel helpless when so much is out of our control. And some of us might turn to gambling online for entertainment, or to financially support ourselves (unaware of the harms) while existing gamblers might up the stakes by switching to riskier forms of gambling such as online casinos or slots. At a time when so many restrictions have been placed on what we can and can’t do, or where we can go, gambling has never been easier. In the 24/7 internet world, online gambling is available in our homes every second of the day- with no real limits. Although the UK government’s recent ban on the use of credit cards to gamble will help to reduce the credit line, unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. More social responsibility is needed as it doesn’t stop people gambling away their wages and losing their homes, even their families, livelihoods and sometimes their lives.

Remote or online gambling – the fastest growing sector of the industry – has become more accessible in the digital age. With the marketing and advertising spend increased it is big business, making it easier to use and more visually appealing. The risk of harm has never been greater, especially now during COVID-19

Gambling is associated with a wide range of harms- financial problems of course but also relationship breakdown, stress, anxiety and depression, and at the most extreme, suicide. Anyone can be affected and at any time, but the research has shown that gambling harms disproportionately affects those from deprived communities. Historically our most deprived areas have always been targeted by the gambling industry, allowing them to market to a specific demographic- those they consider prime candidates for their products- people who are placing a bet to escape from an impoverished reality, in the hope for a better future.

Sadly, gambling harms don’t only affect the person who gambles. For every person who has a gambling problem, between 6 and 10 people in their life will be affected, usually those closest to them including children. Gambling is all too often a learned behaviour and it is becoming more prevalent in our young people, with more 11 to 16 year olds gambling nowadays than drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.

The number of people experiencing gambling problems who seek help has always been low, but specialist gambling support services have recently reported a further decline in those seeking assistance during lockdown. This may be because there is no ‘safe place’ in their homes- no private space to pick up the phone and quietly seek help, without alerting the family. This is a worrying time for us all and many don’t want to burden their families even further, but by tying to keep their gambling problems hidden they are vulnerable and further exposed to harm.

The COVID-19 outbreak has changed society as we know it. Lockdown measures were needed to slow the spread of the virus but these undoubtedly have had a profound social and economic impact. More people than ever are struggling to get by day to day, but those people who were already vulnerable, will be the hardest hit – people living in poverty, with insecure housing or employment, people experiencing mental ill health, drug or alcohol problems, the young, the old and people with existing health problems or disabilities.

We need to treat gambling the same as alcohol and smoking addictions have been treated in the past – as public health problems. We need a new approach and to look at all the different policy areas including health and social care, education, planning, licensing, and financial inclusion- all of which can be used to treat and support hose affected, but with appropriate interventions we can ultimately prevent the harm- by cutting off it off at the root.

As Scotland’s largest city it’s vital that Glasgow tackle these problems head on. Fair, compassionate societies protect the vulnerable people in them. The actions we take now can help protect our health and wellbeing and bring us closer to a fairer society where everyone has an equal chance to flourish.

If you’re struggling with the impact gambling is having on your life, or the life of a loved one, help, advice and support can be found at (this link will take you away from our website) or you can contact the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, or phone Breathing Space (this link will take you away from our website) on 0800 83 85 87 for support and counselling.

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