Turning a blind eye

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

“True luck consists not in holding the best of the cards at the table; luckiest is he who knows just when to rise and go home,” said American statesman John Milton Hay, once upon a time. Post-Cheltenham, I wonder how many will agree.
Did anyone else notice over the festival the relentlessness of the promotion of betting? It was, quite simply, everywhere. And it’s mind-boggling how blasé we’ve become about it all.
Some food for thought about Irish gambling.  
We have no gambling regulatory commission to compile data, but 2014 research conducted by the Department of Health shows that 64.5 per cent of Irish people aged 15 and over had gambled in the past year, 41.4 per cent in the past month. International research shows that, in Ireland, we lose about €470 per adult per year on various forms of gambling. In fact, according to a 2016 survey published in The Economist, we have the third highest gambling losses per adult in the world. We have – at a highly conservative estimate – between 30 and 40 thousand problem gamblers. More and more high-profile people are coming forward to share their stories of gambling addiction.
Does anyone else hear the alarm bells?
And yet, we continue to treat gambling not as a potentially dangerous, destructive habit, but a socially acceptable, almost middle class pastime, barely batting an eyelid at the ubiquitous industry advertising. We’re bombarded by billboards and bus shelters. Barely a day goes by without Paddy Power pulling one of their ‘mischievous’ advertising stunts (and five million people sharing them on social media even though they’re usually about as funny as the vomiting bug).
Overt advertising in the millions is one thing, but in last week’s column I was lauding the journalism in the Sunday Business Post. Imagine my disappointment when, last Sunday, I turned the front cover to see on page two, a full-page light feature offering free bets, and on page three, an extensive interview with Seán Quinn, the main purpose of which seemed to be to inform readers about his new betting business and the incentives it provides to gamblers.
And there’s the sponsorship. Last week, we had the pleasure of hearing Ryan Tubridy’s dulcet tones live from Cheltenham, in an RTÉ outside broadcast sponsored – but not quite declared - by Paddy Power. Here’s another one. Out of the 20 Premier League clubs, how many have front-of-shirt sponsorship deals with betting companies? Count them. It’s an eye-opener.
The fact that none of this is seen as problematic speaks volumes about how flippantly we regard gambling, and how happy we are to ignore problem gambling. I don’t need to go into detail about how compulsive gambling destroys people’s lives – their health, relationships, livelihoods, ambitions, nor the high suicide rate among people with gambling problems. It’s all out there already.
We know what addiction can do – we are aware of the very visible effects of alcohol and nicotine addiction and have taken steps to address these; and as a result, the culture around both is changing. What have we done for those suffering with gambling addiction – a far less visible problem? We’ve made gambling accessible online 24 hours a day without the need for cash, we turn a blind eye to betting companies offering free bets, we allow barely restricted access to our airwaves and advertising media. We run lottery syndicates in our workplaces and generally do everything we can to remind gambling addicts that there is literally no escape.
We’ll have the usual arguments about nanny state-ism and the point will be made that everyone should be entitled to spend their money as they wish. That’s fine when you’re not dealing with the problem of addiction, where it has been shown – and admitted by many gambling addicts – that the nature of this illness compromises logic and morality. Like it or not, we – and the Government – have a duty of and in this light, the current situation is not just irresponsible, it’s downright immoral and both betting companies and compliant media have a case to answer.  
Credit must go to the GAA for voting to ban sponsorship deals with betting companies. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

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