A land of beaten dockets

Ireland has a gambling problem but with all the main stakeholders cashing it regardless of real cost, it’s left to those with an addiction to fund it before being forgotten, writes Ewan MacKenna.

Just a couple of years ago, a friend of mine would pass many an evening by getting online and throwing down money so as to make whatever sport was on TV more interesting. He was a suit-and-tie type guy – well-paid job, nice apartment, and generally good at life, except for this gambling part. Thankfully, among other traits, he had self-awareness and, after losing 12 per cent of his salary in a week, realised action was needed. The problem was that, while the entrance into such a world was a lazy click away, the exit involved running a gauntlet laid down by his bookmaker.

With a new internet account, he wasn’t able to cancel for a month, so he urgently hustled across the city to a shop on a Dublin street. They too refused, citing the same rule and only when he pleaded that he was a “degenerate gambler that couldn’t be trusted” was it agreed a freeze be installed. But someone upstairs got word and the next day he got a call saying the freeze had been thawed, as it was against policy, but “he was under no obligation to continue gambling”.

His story came to mind for a column that’s sandwiched between Paddy Power announcing record profits last Tuesday and a nation reaching for its wallets before the biggest of racing festivals this Tuesday. Right now, we’re caught in middle of what’s passed off as a harmless flutter and an area of sport that is ruining more and more lives. Yet all the while, the first line on a major Cheltenham site reads: “The festival is all about big betting, with £600m expected to change hands.” We’re not sure why that’s a good thing and why it would be celebrated. Then again, we’re not sure either why, across all sports, various stakeholders allow gambling to wriggle into their midst when it goes against the enjoyment, inclusivity and health that sport is about.

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Thankfully, with my friend, you didn’t need a magnifying glass to spot the tell-tale signs. Sometimes there was a chair with a leg torn off, other times the contents of a bin were splashed across the floor, once a plasterer inspecting a beat up wall said he’d rather not take on a job of such proportions. And the excuses were always the same, be it a missed penalty, a double-top off the wire, a black wobbling in the jaws, or a jockey being easy on the whip. But the danger with most gambling addictions is you can’t tell they exist. Instead they lurk, coming out in quiet and alone time.

On a visit back to my home town recently, the gossip was all about a politician who’d pocketed public money to feed his habit. Those at the pub where he drank were stunned because “everything seemed grand” but it usually does and that’s what makes it so lethal. With other addictions there are trip switches along the way. Drink too much and the bar man will say enough and there’s a physical effect, drugs are illegal, cigarette taxes are a dissuasion, but how many times has a person been cut off by a big-name bookie and when has government stepped in with needed regulation. We’re about to get minimum pricing in off-licences to help alleviate alcohol abuse, so why not alleviate gambling that’s far more out of control? We’re not suggesting a nanny state, but there is a duty to protect the vulnerable, and an addict with a bookie’s app is the equivalent of a drunk with car keys.

Contacted about this, the Department of Sport noted that the issue was not theirs as “betting tax falls to the Department of Finance, horseracing falls to the Department of Agriculture, and gambling is a matter for the Department of Justice”. Technically, that may be the case, but no one takes responsibility while taking all the perks. Sport gets added interest and sponsorship, the government gets employment and taxes, major bookmakers get millions and millions but those with a serious weakness aren’t protected.

Little wonder that Paddy Power reported a 15 per cent increase in operating profit to just over €15 million from its Irish retail operations while its Irish retail stakes exceeded €1bn for the first time in 2014. That’s about €290 for every person legally allowed to gamble – with one bookmaker. But the combined statistics go way beyond that. More than 100,000 Irish people are believed to suffer from a gambling addiction, yet less than 1 per cent receives treatment. Experts warn that, among under-25s, as many as 90 per cent start gambling on a hand-held device while the Institute of Public Health said studies indicate gambling among young people was three times more prevalent than those over 21. Indeed, GambleAware estimates that an astonishing €10,000 is gambled every minute in Ireland.

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Behind such numbers are cases like that of Tony O’Reilly, the Wexford postmaster who everyone thought was fine until it emerged he stole €1.75 million to feed his habit and ended up with a three-year jail sentence. That made headlines, but there are so many more you never hear of. Speaking to Seán Potts of the Gaelic Players Association last week, he said surveys show the second biggest mental health issue affecting their members, behind depression but ahead of alcoholism, is gambling. And there are the side effects of gambling addiction that include depression and alcohol as well as much worse. Having penned Oisín McConville’s autobiography, he mentioned playing for Armagh being an escape because, in the real world, his gambling issue was leading to serious thoughts of suicide.

Talking with an independent bookmaker, they asked if the technology of the major players is used to exploit such vulnerability. With leading betting companies having highly sophisticated IT systems, after your first five or six bets and credit card lodgments, they’re able to tell what kind of customer you are likely to be. So they can immediately identify those likely to be problem gamblers and should have a responsibility to stop them. But this independent bookmaker also posed the question of whether such data was instead used to target these people and it’s a fair question as one study showed that problem gamblers account for 53 per cent of profits bookies make.

Of course, it’s never portrayed like that, and this week it’ll be bypassed. Those who get a Cheltenham tip from the brother of a friend’s cousin who works in a yard might throw down a tenner and confess to it being great fun. If only they could see the thousands among them who are screaming without making a sound. Then they’d see that, in gambling, there’s rarely a genuine smile.

Sunday Business Post
8 March, 2015


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