ITV News' UK Editor Paul Brand meets recovering gambling addicts at the UK's only residential rehab as MPs are to propose tougher laws on the activity
We’ve only been in Sharon’s house for half an hour, and already she has been triggered.
Her hands tremble and her voice waivers.
On a piece of paper in her kitchen she’s spotted a logo with a circle and some triangles on it.
To Sharon, it looks like a roulette wheel, and already she’s craving a spin.
For two years she barely left her home due to her online gambling addiction, which has left her emotionally drained.
"All my stresses went away when I gambled," she told me. "It was like my own bubble."
"The hours would fly by, you could miss a meal, you’d hold yourself even if you wanted to go to the toilet. I've actually driven with my phone in my hand looking at the road and thinking, I can't miss what's going on."
Sharon hasn’t placed a bet since last year as she tries to shake her addiction. But it’s a constant battle to resist a relapse.
She is one of as many as 1.4 million people in the UK who have a problem with gambling, though the figures are hotly disputed by the industry.
Whatever the exact number, the government clearly feels it is significant enough to warrant further protection.
Any day now, ministers are due to publish a white paper containing proposals to update gambling laws.
The current legislation was passed in 2005 – well before the invention of the smart phone. An analogue law for a digital age.
Since then, gambling has migrated from betting shops to betting apps. Millions of us take a punt in our palms via online casinos and other games.
But while the industry insists most people play for fun, online gambling can be high stakes.
The NHS treats around 1,000 gambling addicts a year, with 22 bespoke clinics due to be opened by next year to meet growing demand.
Supply of treatment cannot keep pace, and sadly every year 400 people are estimated to take their own lives due to their spiraling addictions.
Among them was Chris Bruney.
He was only 25 when he took his own life after losing £119,000 in a five-day gambling spree.
'About three months before he passed he stopped gambling which he had tried to do before but the companies didn't allow him to. They'd bombard him with their products and free this, free that'
All the while, he was being bombarded with free spins and cash incentives to feed his compulsion.
His mother, Judith, told me he had first become interested in gambling during the 2014 World Cup, before he moved his habit online and became hooked.
"He was beautiful, he was energetic, motivated, strong, kind, he wanted to help everybody," she told me.
Indeed, Chris had just been named Yorkshire Apprentice of the Year.
But his potential was slowly being robbed by his addiction.
"If people are gambling a lot of money quickly, the company is supposed to intervene. But they didn't do that”, Judith tells me.
"And I know that if they, that had have happened, Chris would've had time to just stop and think, what am I doing?"
The Gambling Commission, which regulates the industry, fined the company Playtech £3.5m for failing to protect Chris. The two websites he used have since closed down.
ITV’s Tonight programme was given the first ever access to a treatment centre in Dudley where other men are trying to escape the same fate as Chris.
The charity Gordon Moody provides a 14-week course, where gambling addicts must give up their phones and their families to fully immerse themselves in therapy.
'My debts on paper are nothing compared to what I lost altogether'
People often assume the greatest loss to a gambler is the money. But more often it is the relationships, jobs and dignity that they surrender to their addiction.
At one session, I meet Mark.
He tells me: "I've lost well in excess of £150,000, maybe even £200,000 over the last 20 years.
"I've lost my home, lost my car. My children haven't spoken to me for some time - that's the biggest thing I've lost.
"I can totally understand why people have unfortunately made that horrific decision to end their lives. I've been there twice. I'd actually made plans and just before coming here was one of them. And thankfully I didn't give up. This for me was my last chance."
Campaigners say companies should be doing more to offer addicts a much earlier chance to escape their gambling.
The UK’s largest betting giant – Flutter – agreed to let us film the efforts they say they already make to protect customers from harm.
At their headquarters in Leeds, I meet Emma who heads up their safer gambling team.
She is scanning online accounts flagged as potentially problematic via a computer algorithm.
"In the team we have a number of flags: gambling more, higher stakes, higher deposits. We really get into the nitty gritty of that customer's account. And if we don't know enough about the customer to be comfortable that their play is safe and sustainable for them, then we'll make contact, and we'll restrict the account in the meantime."
Of its 3.7 million customers in the UK and Ireland, Flutter’s algorithms flagged 188,000 accounts last year. But only 6,800 were shut down or suspended – just 0.2% of its customer base.
I ask their Chairman, Ian Proctor, whether addicts are simply too profitable for the company to ban.
"We're a recreational business," he insists. "We want to grow that customer base. It's not really in anybody's interest, definitely not in our interest, to grow an unsustainable business for people that can't afford to spend the money on gambling."
ITV News' Paul Brand asks Flutter boss Ian Proctor what the company has been doing as a business to tackle problem gambling
But is enough being done by companies more generally when people continue to die from their addiction?
"I think any death is sad and death through suicide is especially sad,” he tells me. “It's important that we understand all the reasons why people decide to take that drastic and awful course of action."
"I think we’ve been on a, on a journey on this and I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t sit here and say that, that that journey is completed. I think there is more that we can do to reduce the risk of gambling harms. We have a moral responsibility to do that. And I think at Flutter we’ve aimed to lead from the front on that."
But campaigners continue to argue that the reason is because of weak regulation of the industry.
They are hoping the upcoming white paper contains measures such as a statutory levy, meaning gambling firms must pay a set proportion of their profits into an independently managed fund to be spent on research and treatment.
At the moment, the industry does spend millions on helping addicts, but it decides how much to contribute and how the money is spent.
It’s just one thing Labour MP Carolyn Harris thinks should change. She’s the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Gambling Related Harm.
MP Carolyn Harris would like to see the introduction of an ombudsman
"Currently, there is no independent body which assesses complaints against the industry", she told us.
"So I'd like to see an ombudsman who can take up that role and act as an intermediate between the gambling companies and the individuals who gamble."
Others would like to see maximum stakes online and affordability checks for players to ensure that they can afford the bets they are making.
However, the industry itself warns that overly-strict regulation could force gambling underground, creating an ever-larger black market for illegal gambling.
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The Betting and Gaming Council, which represents gambling companies, told us: "The Betting and Gaming Council’s largest members pledged an additional £100m of additional funding between 2019 and 2023 for Research, Education and Treatment services to be administered by the independent charity GambleAware.
"The industry has no say on how that money is spent nor does it have any formal or informal role with GambleAware.
"We strongly support the Gambling Review as a further opportunity to raise standards and promote safer gambling, but any changes introduced by the government must not drive customers to the growing unsafe, unregulated black market online, where billions of pounds are being staked."
The Gambling Commission says it has fined companies a total of £49m since the start of 2022 and suspended or revoked six licences.
It added: "Our job is to make gambling safer and the Review creates an opportunity to build on the progress we have made to protect players and the public – such as clamping down on online slots products, banning gambling on credit cards, forcing operators to take part in a national online self-exclusion scheme, and introducing new rules to stamp out irresponsible ‘VIP customer’ practices."
The government told ITV Tonight that it is "determined" to protect those most at risk of gambling harms and its white paper will be published imminently.
You can watch High Stakes? Britain’s Betting Boom – Tonight on Thursday, March 9 at 8.30pm.
If you need any further information or support surrounding gambling issues you can contact:
GambleAware offers free, confidential help and support to anyone who’s worried about their – or someone else’s – gambling. The National Gambling Helpline is available for free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 0808 8020 133
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