Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, condemned the “fraction” spent by industry on helping those struggling with addiction compared to the amount spent on advertising and marketing.
He was speaking as the NHS announced a new service for 13 to 25-year-olds based at the UK’s only dedicated gambling addiction centre, the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London.
Up to 14 more gambling addiction clinics, initially focusing on adults, are expected to open in the coming months.
These include the NHS Northern Gambling Service in Leeds this summer, followed by clinics in Manchester and Sunderland.
NHS England said there was growing concern that online gaming sites and targeted adverts are fuelling addiction, including among children.
So, what are the facts behind gambling addiction among young people?
The Gambling Commission estimates there are 55,000 children and young people aged 11 to 16 with a gambling problem, and about 450,000 youngsters are gambling regularly.
- This compared to 13% who had drunk alcohol in the past week, 4% who had smoked cigarettes and 2% who had taken illegal drugs
- Types of betting included a private bet for money with friends (6%), National Lottery scratchcards (4%), fruit/slot machines (3%) and playing cards for money with friends (3%).
- Some 5% of 11-16-year-olds had spent their own money on online gambling in the past 12 months, with 6% of those using a parent or guardian’s account.
- Some 13% had also played gambling-style games online, with 31% opening “loot boxes” in a computer game or app.
What do the experts say about gambling addiction and health?
NHS boss Simon Stevens says the links between problem gambling and stress, depression and mental health problems are growing, adding: "There are too many stories of lives lost and families destroyed."
He stressed that tackling mental ill health caused by addiction is everyone’s responsibility – especially those firms that directly contribute to the problem.
“This is an industry that splashes £1.5 billion on marketing and advertising campaigns, much of it now pumped out online and through social media, but it has been spending just a fraction of that helping customers and their families deal with the direct consequences of addiction," he said.
“The sums just don’t add up and that is why as well as voluntary action it makes sense to hold open the possibility of a mandatory levy if experience shows that’s what’s needed.
“A levy to fund evidence-based NHS treatment, research and education can substantially increase the money available, so that taxpayers and the NHS are not left to pick up a huge tab.”
Gambling firms have recently offered to increase contributions to help problem gamblers but the Gambling Commission says a mandatory system would increase funding from about £12m to at least £70m a year.
The new NHS outpatient gambling clinics will be staffed by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists and can accept referrals from around the country.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones founder and director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic and the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ spokeswoman on behavioural addictions, said: “Gambling disorder is a destructive condition which doesn’t discriminate.
“It wrecks lives, pulls families into debt and can leave people feeling suicidal.”