Ireland has some of the worst gambling rates, with the effects of lockdown on addiction expected to be felt for years to come, Chai Brady hears
A study released this month found that Irish people are the fourth biggest gamblers in the European Union and while this may be hard to believe, for a Cuan Mhuire addiction counsellor based in Limerick, it comes as no surprise.
The amount Irish gamblers spent last year adds up to €1.36 billion, the fourth highest in the EU. This amounts to €300 per adult. Industry analysts H2 Gambling Capital ranked Ireland as having the 14th highest gambling losses in the world.
A European School Survey conducted in 2019 found that 10% of the Irish population were excessive gamblers, and just over 5% were problem gamblers.
Michael Guerin, who is based in Cuan Mhuire’s centre in Bruree, told The Irish Catholic that “given the trends that we have seen in gambling in the past two or three years, for a report to say to us that we are the fourth highest gamblers in the European Union wouldn’t surprise me at all”.
Some 10-15 years ago in Ireland gamblers would have mainly been middle-aged men who were backing horses in betting centres, Mr Guerin said, but now the demographic has completely shifted, with many more women presenting as problem gamblers.
Mr Guerin explains: “We’re seeing far more women than we used to with problematic gambling issues and they are almost always online, on non-sporting sites. They don’t necessarily bet on sport”, which points to more interest in online casinos or other gambling sites.
“We are seeing young men now that have a co-morbid issue with drug dependence and problematic gambling. Alcohol, cocaine and gambling would be a very common combination,” he said.
“A lot of the young men would be gambling on sporting events but they would be doing so online and there are multiple opportunities within any sporting event to bet on various things, like who scores the first goal, who takes the first corner kick, who will be the first player to be booked and that kind of thing.
It has become increasingly easy to place bets just using a tablet or smartphone, with 44% of all online bets being made on these devices”
“In actual fact you could have one hundred betting opportunities in one match. It’s very cleverly designed by the people who sell gambling products to keep the clients engaged for the duration of the event. There are so many variables on which somebody can bet within one sporting event.”
The H2 statistics noted a large increase of online gambling in Ireland. More than a third of gambling occurred online (36%) in 2019, this increased to almost half in 2020. Of course, this makes sense due to the pandemic when all other venues were closed for extended periods. It has become increasingly easy to place bets just using a tablet or smartphone, with 44% of all online bets being made on these devices.
“I suppose the interesting part about lockdown was that betting offices were closed and there were three or four months there was no sports whatsoever yet it would appear that the turnover of gambling companies during that time increased,” said Mr Guerin.
“It points to the fact that people were engaged in gambling for the sake of gambling rather than making a bet based on judgement, based on which team would win or what horse would win the race or whatever the case might be.”
While Cuan Mhuire do not offer services to anyone below the age of 18, he said that the young people they meet “all say that they have gambled underage. That would be prior to us engaging with them in adulthood”.
With many people losing their jobs, being bored, and perhaps moving to more high-risk online gambling, there are dangers for people long after the pandemic’s restrictions have been lifted.
Mr Guerin said: “There’s no question about it, that there is a connection between the restrictions and everything that went with them, the isolation, the anxiety, the worry contributed and, in some cases, exacerbated an existing problem and then maybe in other cases created a problem where there wasn’t one beforehand.
“Anybody who develops an addiction to anything during the lockdown, their addiction is not going to go away simply because there are no further restrictions or even if there is a time in the future when there’s no Covid, so these people who ended up with difficulties that are maybe Covid, lockdown related, will have to live with these conditions in perpetuity.”
There could be a large increase in people needing supports who have already been badly affected by a gambling addiction developed during lockdown, according to Mr Guerin, who added: “We would reasonably predict that we will see increases in people looking for help with gambling and alcohol dependency for the next three to five years.”
This comes as the Minister of State for Justice James Browne said this month a gambling regulator is due to be appointed by the end of the year, eight years after a bill aimed at regulating the industry was introduced but never passed.
Mr Browne said legislation would be introduced in September to reform regulation of the industry.
The issue of gambling advertisements has also been in the public sphere, with the President criticising its close association with sport. At the end of June at the opening of an addiction rehabilitation centre in Wicklow, President Michael D. Higgins said: “I’m a lifetime supporter of sport, and during Covid, my heart broke regular times, to think sport is being saturated with gambling advertisements which are so dangerous and have done so much damage to families and to individuals.”
For former Armagh GAA footballer turned counsellor Oisin McConville, Ireland has become an “embarrassment” regarding its regulation of gambling. Having struggled with his own addiction to gambling, Mr McConville now helps others with their addictions.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Mr McConville said: “The Government has to start to take notice of young people and how it’s destroying their lives, and not just young people, lives in general. Something needs to be done about. It’s OK recognising it, it’s OK talking about it, it’s OK for the President to talk about advertising, but we have to start doing something as well, if you talk about a gambling regulator, we were promised that years ago and still nothing has happened. Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar, they should be hanging their heads in shame.
“It’s a scandal in this country, it has gone beyond a joke. The few people at the top that matter or can do something about it they don’t care and that’s the thing that is so annoying for people. There’s no drive. The gambling bill has been there since 2013, the bill is sitting in purgatory, it’s absolutely disgusting what is happening.
“People talk about pandemics, they talk about cancer and all these things, and you know what? Gambling addiction is as big a cancer as anything and it is ruining families lives all over the place, highest rate of suicide, and unfortunately nobody gives a damn they’ve just let this country spiral out of control.”
Some young people may have already slipped through the gaps as Mr McConville says some children are starting to gamble as young as 12-13 years old”
In the North there is incoming legislation to tackle gambling, including online gambling, as the laws have not been changed since 1985. The North’s Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced in May 2021 that they would reform the laws under a proposed two-phase approach.
The first phase involves imposing a levy on gambling operators, establishing a code of practice for license holders, making gambling contracts enforceable and making it illegal for children to use gambling machines.
Some young people may have already slipped through the gaps as Mr McConville says some children are starting to gamble as young as 12-13 years old. He has also found that lockdown has “magnified” gambling issues, with families becoming more aware of the addiction.
“People have a little bit more time on their hands, I think the people who were spending small on gambling, that spend has increased, but also it has introduced a whole new demographic of people to it,” he said, adding that more women are getting involved and they are “as prone to addiction as everyone else”.
Sports was the most popular type of online gambling in 2019, according to the European Gaming and Betting Association. It makes up 41% of the market.
Chances are if you feel as if you have an issue then you have an issue, that’s my experience”
When sporting events were cancelled due to the pandemic, people “flipped on to something else” to gamble on, according to Mr McConville.
“I know of people who would make £1,000-£5,000 bets on an under 21 game in Azerbaijan or something like that. People don’t really understand, it doesn’t have to be Italy and England in the Euro final or Kerry and Dublin in the All-Ireland final, for a gambler it doesn’t really matter what the sport or occasion is because when we’re gambling, the event is the gamble.”
“The online stuff is pretty serious because recovery is very, very difficult. There’s so many issues with it as regards what the pandemic has done, certainly people have been a lot more reckless than they have been in the past,” Mr McConville said.
“When people gamble online they think of it as monopoly money, it’s easy to forget how much you’re gambling and again how much you’re gambling over your means. Online gambling is the exact same as gambling has always been, hugely hidden.
“There’s still huge swathes of people who think it’s a great way to make money and obviously that’s not the case, but you feel as if it is the case at the time.
“Nobody expects that having a bet could spiral out of control in a big way in short period of time but that’s exactly what happens. I’m speaking to people now who only started gambling six months ago and are already in major bother.”
Mr McConville explained that a good way to know if gambling has become a problem for an individual is by setting a limit on the money they can realistically spend a week on gambling, if they continuously break the limit and are then unable to stop, then there is an issue. “Chances are if you feel as if you have an issue then you have an issue, that’s my experience,” Mr McConville added.
There are obvious warning signs for family members or friends and it is not just that a person can’t pay their bills. “A family in lockdown would realise that the person who is gambling is flying off the handle a lot more, they are irritable, and I think once you see that – more so during lockdown because the person is maybe spending a lot more time at home – well then that’s the time to recognise it. I think as an individual you recognise when you’re more irritable and you recognise that there is an issue,” Mr McConville said.
Sometimes a good way of letting people know that you know is leaving literature on their bedside table or their car or wherever it is, work station or wherever they spend a lot of time”
“The individual needs to talk to somebody it could be family, friends, doctor, teacher, work colleague, counsellor, whatever, once it’s shared there’s an opportunity. Family may need to carry out an intervention in order to tell the person that their gambling is affecting everybody in the household, or the workplace, or sporting environment or wherever, and I think they need to address it with the person who is in addiction.
“But until that person is ready to hold their hands up, it’s very, very difficult for families because it will feel like a lot of times like they are banging their head against a brick wall. Sometimes a good way of letting people know that you know is leaving literature on their bedside table or their car or wherever it is, work station or wherever they spend a lot of time.
“That’s sometimes how you set the wheels in motion,” he said.