Well, so much for my best intention to blog every week… it seems to have gone skipping along full of the joys of our early spring along with my other intention; to avoid eating chocolate during the working week. I got caught out feeling starving hungry whilst trapped in an office environment, miles (well, it felt far enough) from a shop and succumbed to the tin of chocolates secreted in the desk drawer after the excesses of Christmas. Rationally I knew that to eat them would not help me to feel good about myself health wise, but my feelings of hunger made my cravings for the chocolate stronger than my rational thoughts. Don’t we all know that feeling to some extent, when our feelings get the better of what we know is good for us? Anyone of us who says ‘no’ must never have fallen in love with someone we know we should not, had that one drink too many at the office party, or succumbed to best forgotten tin of chocolates in the drawer… If we say ‘yes’ then we can begin to have a little understanding with how it feels to battle with gambling addiction. The strength of feelings, of cravings, wins out over what is rationally known and intended.
The reason I did not write last week was that I was swept up in the whirlwind of media interest sparked by the introduction of the Code of Conduct for Betting Shops introduced by the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) which came into effect on 28th February 2014. The Code means that those playing Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) will be able to set their own limits and that mandatory alerts will appear on the FOBT screen after £250 or 30 minutes have been spent. The aim is to reduce the incidence of problem gambling.The introduction of the new Code of Conduct, like the FOBTs themselves, caused great controversy Would it work? Did it go far enough? Should it be compulsory and ‘toughened up’? argued by Maria Miller MP.
I was asked by Sky News, BBC Breakfast News and various journals to give professional comment on the value of the Code of Conduct. Now, I am not a scientific researcher so it is less statistical analysis and more anecdotal and observational evidence based on hundreds of hours of working with people addicted to gambling along with a view from the perspective of an independent practitioner that I have to offer. Maybe that is no bad thing. Of course we need statistical evidence to prove/disprove theories, but I wonder if sometimes in our endless search for statistics we lose sight of the real people whom these numbers represent. Often I notice in media coverage the emphasis is on ‘how many’ and ‘how often’ people develop gambling addiction and most certainly on ‘how much’ money is spent, and less often on what gambling really feels like to the person with the addiction. This leaves the lay person with the misconception that gambling addiction is all about the money and so naturally without a lot of understanding, or desire to understand, what else might motivate who they perceive as the greedy or ill- informed- about- the- odds gambler. Gambling might now be the hot topic of addictions, but in terms of coming close to understanding what drives it, most people outside the world of gambling industry and treatment are at very best lukewarm.
We are now perhaps a little more enlightened when it comes to alcoholism and drug addiction. Most of us would perhaps understand, thanks to TV documentaries and celebrity disclosures, that the alcoholic for example is not drinking to the point of risking their life just because they love the taste of alcohol. We now understand that many people are drinking to excess because life outside of the bottle does not feel a great place to be. We understand that even though they rationally know it risks their health and ultimately their life that they still pick up that next bottle because they are addicted to the way they feel when taking their drug of choice. In itself, perhaps that phrase ‘drug of choice’ misleads us when we discuss addiction, because to the person addicted in the grip of their addiction they do not feel they have a choice. The addictive pattern of the alcoholic or the drug addict is not so dissimilar to gambling addict. Rationally they know absolutely that to put any more money into the FOBT is going to do no good for the health of their bank balance, or their equally deteriorating mental, emotional, physical health and their ailing relationships. But by then, they are so hooked by craving the high from the anticipation of the win, or the win itself, they now feel an overwhelming need to stay and play; to keep the feelings flowing through them, in just the same way as the drug addict or the alcoholic needs to feed their craving. For the person addicted to gambling, they need a constant source of money to keep the feelings flowing, keeping them in a drug like haze, until ultimately they experience a financial loss, and with it the great crashing low, the overwhelming craving to play again to lift the immediately returning deep depression and sickening anxiety.
So, my thinking was that perhaps the most valuable thing I could do when given my TV broadcast opportunities was to communicate among all of the statistical evidence- or sometimes lack of it- a little of what gambling addiction really is all about and to help to grow a wider understanding of the complex issues involved. I spoke of how there is a difference between prevention and cure and in my professional opinion the new Code of Conduct might slow things down enough to stop some falling into addictive patterns, by giving them time to hang onto rational thought from which place they still truly feel they have a choice to limit time and money spent in play. Based on the findings of my own extensive practice, I also believe, however, that for the person already addicted the cure is likely not lie in the new Code of Conduct because that person has now lost their grip on rational thought and ability to limit time and money spent. And importantly too, it is not the cure because the roots of gambling addiction do not grow only in the betting shop, but as with any addiction, in fragmented families, lost jobs, loneliness, isolation, anxiety, stress and depression. The only way we will, as a society, better manage problem gambling is if we understand it. As valuable as they are, we sometimes need to see beyond the statistics that sometimes can distract us from the other issues which also are a fact.
Perhaps one of the most valuable things about the new Code of Conduct is that the betting industry is communicating that they are willing to look beyond the statistical evidence issue and try to see hear and to better understand the experience of those among their customers who do develop problems playing FOBTs. And whatever the statistical evidence might reveal, continuing to increase understanding and communication between the gambling industry and the problem gambler has to be a very positive step in the right direction.