Gambling addiction rates may be much higher than previously thought, according to research that also warns nearly half of those with a problem are not getting any help.
In a survey commissioned by the GambleAware charity, YouGov estimated that up to 2.7% of adults in Great Britain, or nearly 1.4 million people, are problem gamblers. Experts urged caution over the figure, insisting that the true addiction rate is likely to be closer to the health survey figures of 0.7% cited by industry regulator the Gambling Commission.
But the findings still indicate that the number of problem gamblers – defined as scoring more than eight on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) – may be significantly above current estimates. YouGov questioned 16,000 people for the survey.
The report also found that as many as 7% of adults, or 3.6 million people, report having been negatively affected by someone else’s gambling problem.
Overall, the research suggests that nearly 5 million British people have experienced harm linked to gambling, even accounting for the overlap between problem gamblers and those they affect.
Both GambleAware and the Gambling Commission said it was likely that YouGov’s findings overestimated the addiction rate, highlighting a review of the data by survey sampling expert Professor Patrick Sturgis.
Sturgis, a former GambleAware trustee, said both the YouGov survey and the health survey figures were likely to contain flaws, with the true rate of problem gambling likely to be closer to the commonly used 0.7% figure than YouGov’s 2.7% estimate.
But he said the higher figure could not be ruled out and added that previous research had probably “somewhat underestimated” addiction levels. The findings are likely to fuel calls for stronger measures to address gambling addiction, amid increased concern about the added risk posed to frequent gamblers isolated at home due to coronavirus.
Labour MP Carolyn Harris, who chairs a cross-party group of MPs examining gambling harm, said the report was “deeply concerning”.
“While the rate of 2.7% could well be an overestimate, the health survey data seems to be a significant underestimate. This new data suggests that addiction levels are far higher than has been previously thought.
“Policymakers, the regulator and gambling support services must take note of these important findings and ensure that the correct provision and regulation is in place to support gamblers in the UK.”
The report also found that nearly half of all addicts are not receiving treatment, with poorer people, women and those from a BAME background the worst affected.
A lack of awareness of services and the stigma associated with gambling problems were both cited as significant barriers to accessing treatment and support.
While women are less prone to developing a gambling disorder, those who do are three times more likely than men to refer to practical barriers such as cost, time or location as a reason for not accessing treatment or support.
Matt Gaskell, clinical lead for NHS gambling clinics in the north of England, said the report should lead to significant changes in how treatment and support is offered and delivered.
“There is a significant gap between very high levels of gambling harm and the provision of help, and this gives a useful guide as to how and where to plug some of these gaps,” he said.
“The sense of shame and stigma that provides a barrier to coming forward for support is compounded by the narrative, perpetuated by the gambling industry and others, that emphasises individualised responsibility for harms.
“My patients feel that they are entirely to blame. The public know that smoking cigarettes is dangerous, and this helps us to be compassionate about tobacco addiction and seeking support for this.
“It will help if the public are similarly aware of the addictive nature of gambling products.”
The Gambling Commission said the report had provided “invaluable additional information” about the gaps in current treatment provision across Great Britain. It pointed to £9m it has diverted towards treatment services, funded by penalties levied on gambling firms that breach the terms of their licence.