Gambling firms must change, not pay fines – Liz Ritchie
My wonderful son Jack took his life in 2017 after he had been drawn into a gambling addiction.
Soon afterwards, I visited William Hill’s London office with my husband, Charles. We were more naive back then; they’d just admitted shortcomings and we wanted to warn people and thought they would listen. Jack had started gambling online with William Hill, and did so, on and off, until he died.
We requested a meeting with the chief executive, but instead met with the director of sustainability and our calls for further measures were dismissed. Soon after we were escorted out of the building, quickly and rudely.
Yesterday’s news that the company has been fined a record £19.2m for multiple failings did not surprise us. The list of failures is extensive, including allowing obviously addicted customers to lose tens of thousands of pounds in minutes, even after they’d tried to self-exclude.
This is not William Hill’s first big fine – and unless there is a major change in the industry, there will be more. The current business model is built on addiction. Research shows that 86% of the industry’s online profits come from a 5% group of addicted or at-risk customers. It is clear the gambling industry cannot generate its ludicrous profits without causing harm.
This horrific business model explains why online gambling products, such as slots and casino games, are designed to be highly addictive. The sounds, lights and false near-misses are carefully engineered to allow maximum amounts of dopamine to flood the brain to prolong the time spent gambling. The younger the brain, the worse the damage. Hundreds of millions of pounds are also spent yearly on wall-to-wall advertising, to ensure these dangerous products become normalised, both for adults and the next generation. Once you are on their marketing list, you will be inundated with messages and inducements to keep you coming back. Recovering gamblers have told me it’s like being stalked.
It’s more profitable for companies to pay the fines – small in comparison to the profits – and to carry on as usual rather than make products less addictive and advertising less prevalent. So perhaps it’s no surprise that our research, Public Health England and the Office for Health Improvements and Disparities have estimated that on average there is at least one gambling-related suicide every day in the UK. Charles and I co-founded Gambling with Lives, a charity that supports other families who are going through this horror, and our caseload is growing. Behind the statistics are real lives irrevocably changed by loss.
When a gambling firm is fined, they say that these were historical failings, that they’ve learned, and they’ve now improved. And then it happens again. And again. Newly bereaved families contact our charity with alarming frequency, with the same stories about the same companies, so we know there’s nothing historical about it.
Charles often helps the legal teams trawl through a person’s gambling data before inquests. Dozens of pages, each with hundreds of transactions, where you can see someone, line by line, bet by bet, being nudged along to their deaths. It really upsets him to see this, and he wants to shout, “Please stop” – even though he knows it’s too late and they can’t hear him. The people who can stop this, the staff at the gambling company, also see this data; but instead of intervening, they continue with free bets and bonuses.
The industry regulator, the Gambling Commission, has the power to take away licences, but so far has not done so with these big high street firms. We can only speculate that the firms’ ability to take the Gambling Commission to judicial review is intimidating. What needs to happen to make the regulator use its muscle?
It is time for the government to step in. After years of delay, in April we finally expect to see the white paper of the Gambling Act review, and with it a potential raft of measures that could limit the harm. Gambling firms could be forced to conduct checks to ensure people don’t bet more than they can afford. There could be restrictions on the unfettered advertising – and there could be action on the most dangerous products, slowing them down and reducing the massive stake sizes.
There was a gambling-related death yesterday, one today and will be one tomorrow. The government has a duty to prevent these deaths. They owe it to the families who will wake up tomorrow and find that their beautiful, adored child has ended their life, avoidably, because of a company’s greed.
First published in The Guardian, March 29 2023.