The gambling review must end voluntary funding – Liz Ritchie

My son Jack took his life in November 2017 after being drawn into gambling while still at school.

Jack was a big-hearted personality who effortlessly made friends wherever he went. When he first told us he had been gambling, we had no idea his wonderful life was at risk.

Why would we? No one talked about gambling in relation to suicide. The only safety messaging portrayed it as something fun that you could stop. Nothing was said in schools. No public campaigns. All the advertising portrayed it as a light-hearted social activity. Everywhere you looked a celebrity was urging you to have a flutter. Gambling, however you chose to do it, was seemingly as safe and normal as going ten-pin bowling.

After Jack died my husband Charles, a retired researcher, investigated the link between gambling and suicide and found there was a gambling-related death every day in the UK, a figure later confirmed by Public Health England.

Why wasn’t this widely known? It wasn’t just the public that were in the dark, but also health and education professionals. If Jack’s GP and headmaster knew about the serious risks, the conversations they had with him would also have been very different. None had the slightest clue.

When we found out the root cause of this national-scale deception, we felt sick to our stomachs.

In the UK, we learned, the funds available for gambling-related information, treatment, education and research are given voluntarily by the gambling industry. This means the industry controls when, how much and where money is spent to deal with the harm it causes.

Imagine how strange it would be if Big Tobacco was able to control the messaging around the dangers of smoking. There would have been no “smoking kills” messages on advertising but more “Take time to think about your smoking”. Benson and Hedges could fund courses in schools about how to “smoke responsibly”. Research studies would conclude that tobacco advertising didn’t lead to more people smoking. People going through treatment could be encouraged to think of themselves, rather than a heavily marketed addictive product, as the source of the problem.

This sounds ludicrous, but it is exactly the situation we are in right now in the UK with gambling.

My husband and I had to wait almost four and a half years for Jack’s inquest hearing which was hard. It was even harder knowing each day another family was being forced, avoidably, to go through the same nightmare. When the coroner concluded that gambling led to our son’s death and that the information and treatment available to him were “woefully inadequate” and continue to be so, we were not surprised.

The government now has the biggest chance since our country’s current gambling laws were drawn up in 2005 to fix this broken system. After much consultation and delay, the white paper of the Gambling Act review is due to be published in the coming weeks and in it could include a measure that will end the system of voluntary funding from the gambling industry in one swoop.

A statutory levy on the profits of the gambling industry to pay for the harm it causes – administered by an independent board – would revolutionise the way gambling-related information, treatment and education is conducted in this country.

More awareness about the dangers of gambling would mean fewer people falling into addiction, and those that did would receive much better treatment. The deaths would plummet, each day one less family would be shattered.

Such a levy is backed by gambling-harm charities, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Gambling Commission, as well as the vast majority of politicians and campaigners working in this space. The only voices opposing it are from the gambling industry itself because it will mean fewer people living with gambling addiction, which means less profit.

In 2018, Charles and I set up the charity Gambling with Lives to support other bereaved families and campaign for change. Over Christmas we learned we’d both been awarded an MBE for this work. We have mixed feelings about this as we never chose or wanted to be here. Being positive, we see it as recognition of the harm that gambling causes as well as of all the people who have campaigned for many years to reduce this harm.

But if the current broken voluntary system remains unchallenged by the Gambling Act review it will be a huge betrayal of all the bereaved families who have fought so long for change after paying the ultimate price.

Even after everything that has happened, we have faith that the government is going to get it right. If not, we won’t stop campaigning until they do.

The fight against Big Tobacco took 50 years before things really changed. We’re going to make this battle much quicker.

First published in The Times, January 18 2023.