Gambling firms have profited during the pandemic but are leaving the NHS to “pick up the pieces” of addiction and should be hit with a compulsory levy to fund treatment, the head of mental health in England has said.
Claire Murdoch – national mental health director for NHS England – denounced the voluntary system that lets the industry dictate how much it contributes to helping addicts.
In an intervention that comes amid a government review of laws governing the £11bn-a-year sector, Murdoch said 750 people have been referred to specialist clinics for treatment of serious addiction since April 2020. The health service is planning to open more gambling clinics across the country because it believes it is currently only reaching “the tip of the iceberg.”
Successive lockdowns have triggered a surge in spending on high-octane online casino games and slot machines, fuelling big increases in revenue at companies such as Paddy Power owner Flutter and Ladbrokes Coral owner Entain. Denise Coates, chief executive of online-only Bet365, paid herself £421m for 2020 last week, taking her rewards over the past four years above £1bn.
But Murdoch, who has previously criticised betting and gaming firms for luring punters in with incentives such as “VIP” hospitality and “free” bets, said the industry’s contributions to treatment were still just a “drop in the ocean”.
“After seeing the destruction the gambling industry has caused to young people in this country, it is clear that firms are focused on profit at the expense of people’s health, while the NHS is increasingly left to pick up the pieces,” she said.
“In a year when the NHS has dealt with our biggest challenge yet in Covid-19, the health service’s psychologists and nurses having been treating hundreds of people with severe gambling addictions.
“The gambling industry must take more responsibility, as the nation has come together over the last year to support the NHS, whether it be volunteering as vaccinators or showing their gratitude to staff. The bookmakers must also step up and agree to a mandatory levy to pay for dealing with the harms of problem gambling.”
Studies have found that there are between 300,000 and 1.4m gambling addicts in Great Britain, but a report published last year found that just 3% of them were receiving specialist help, often relying on industry-funded helplines instead.
MPs on both sides of the house, addiction experts and the industry’s regulator, the Gambling Commission, have all previously called for a mandatory levy to help close the gap, something the government has so far resisted.
Labour’s Carolyn Harris, who chairs a cross-party group of MPs examining gambling harm, said: “The treatment and support services available for people with gambling addiction in this country are vastly underfunded. The industry should not get to decide when and how much they pay for the devastation they cause.”
GambleAware, the charity that receives and disburses much of the industry’s contribution under the voluntary levy, has also backed calls to make a levy compulsory.
The voluntary system has been criticised for raising too little – between £10m and £15m a year – with some operators giving nominal sums such as £1 to ensure inclusion on the public list of donors.
In 2019, a group of the largest gambling companies sought to head off mounting pressure for a mandatory levy by offering to spend an extra £100m by 2023, a plan that won the government’s blessing.
But sources at gambling charities say the money has been slow to arrive, while the industry has also been criticised for trying to control which organisations receive it.
Much of the funding goes through non-NHS services, such as the GamCare charity, but the government has recently sought to improve NHS resources via two new specialist gambling clinics, with 14 more to follow.
Conservative MP Richard Holden said making the levy compulsory to improve treatment options “makes sense”.
“Too often gambling addiction is yet another burden thrust on our NHS and other services when the damage has been done,” he said.
“I really hope that the gambling review highlights this as part of the full package of measures we need.”
While the government has previously shied away from imposing a mandatory levy, it is among measures being considered within the review, which is being overseen by the department for digital, culture media and sport (DCMS).
The Guardian has approached the DCMS for comment.
The Betting & Gaming Council said: “For over 20 years our industry has been the sole funder of research, education and treatment and we welcome the recent decision by the NHS to work with the charity administering the funding, GambleAware, to create clinics to help treat problem gamblers.
“Alongside these contributions to GambleAware, our members also contribute significant funding to a broad range of charities and organisations to directly support research, education and treatment – this includes £10m for the Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme which targets all 11- to 19-year-olds across the country, delivered by [gambling and gaming charity] YGAM and GamCare.”