14 Sep 2021

Gambling Addiction: Bereaved families fight for reform

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

As the government prepares to redraw the laws on gambling for the first time in 16 years, families whose lives have been devastated by gambling addiction are fighting for much tougher regulation.

The industry points to the nearly £5 billion it brings to the Treasury in tax every year and says it is doing all it can to promote safer gambling.

But for families whose loved ones have taken their own lives after spiralling into addiction, that’s not enough.

A quiet battle is going on at Westminster, how to redraw the laws on gambling. On the front line, the families who say gambling cost the lives of the people they loved most.

Channel 4 News was invited to hear their stories at a meeting of cross party MPs set up by the charity Gambling with Lives.

One mother said: “My son died about six years ago now, 23 he was.

“He was so far drawn into it, he always felt he could beat the system. But you can never beat the system at all.”

Her husband added: “In effect, he was losing his salary on payday month after month after month.

“So I think at the end they are in despair. That they’ll get to control it. They mistakenly think that we would be better off without them.”

Another mother said: “Chris was very clever. He was very successful in everything he did. The days before he did end his life, he lost £120,000. They just lured him back in every time.

“He didn’t bet every day. It could be months that he didn’t, because he didn’t want to. But they just offered him this, that and the other.”

In the 16 years since the last Gambling Act, so much has changed. The explosion of online betting means people can gamble 24/7 at the push of a button.

The industry points to the almost £5 billion it gives the Treasury in tax every year and says it’s committed to helping people gamble responsibly.

But its critics point to a cost much harder to quantify, the lives devastated by gambling addiction.

A report by the Lords revealed at least one suicide every day is linked to problem gambling.

At least 300,000 people are classed as problem gamblers in the UK, including 55,000 children aged between just 11 and 16.

Campaign groups are now calling for a ban on all advertising, strict affordability checks and an end to VIP schemes and free bets.

Annie Ashton’s campaign for government action on gambling comes even though her grief is raw.

Her husband, Luke, took his own life less than six months ago. She says free bets constantly pulled him back into an old gambling addiction while he was on furlough.

She said: “There’s no words to describe how we all feel. There’s no words that make it into the dictionary, to describe the heartache that we’re going through.

“He was wonderful. He was half of me. And I’m half of him. He was just everything.”

She added: “Within weeks, it (his gambling) spiralled out of control to the point where it consumed him daily.”

Annie says she understands the well trodden argument about personal responsibility, but says that is to misunderstand the way the industry works.

“It’s designed to be addictive,” she said.” It’s designed to make a profit, and it’s ruthless in the way that they do it.

“Advertising, free bets, promotion, VIP. It’s all aimed at getting a customer to pay into a system that’s not going to benefit them, it’s going to benefit an industry that is only getting bigger and more dangerous in what they are doing.”

The industry body, the Betting and Gaming Council, told us they welcome the review of legislation, that it will build on the work they’re already doing. They point to a ban on betting adverts during live sport before the watershed and safer gambling messages on TV and radio.

Former Conservative Party Leader Iain Duncan Smith told Channel 4 News: “They hunt those who have got a problem… if you lose a lot, they like you a lot.”

He added: “This is about addiction and about the damage it does. And that’s why it’s necessary at times to intervene.”

Labour’s Carolyn Harris said: “They tell you that they self-regulate. They’ve had so many opportunities to self-regulate, but everything they bring in benefits them and not the customer.”