A quarter of gamblers in Wales said they have spent more time and or more money gambling during the coronavirus pandemic, research has found.
Researchers from Swansea University discovered 24% of people revealed lockdown restrictions, which saw the closure of non-essential shops, pubs and other services, had an impact on their gambling habits.
Professor Simon Dymond from the university told ITV News evidence has shown those already at risk of developing a gambling problem have seen an "escalation of their habit".
"They may be gambling for longer, they may be gambling on riskier bets and hence maybe getting deeper into difficulties. So lockdown could be exacerbating problems for people who are already experiencing them", he said.
He warned there could be a "perfect storm brewing", which will result in an increase in the number of people "entrenched" in their problem as the country emerges from lockdown conditions.
Sarah Grant from Cardiff spent 15 years battling a gambling addiction. She told ITV Wales' Wales This Week she used to spend all her money, and was unable to afford to pay bills or buy food.
"As time went on, I got more and more into it - to the point where I ended up committing theft to fund my gambling".
During the first lockdown, the isolation Sarah experienced led to a relapse. She spent £700 in just a few days, and says she felt like she was "back to square one".
Sarah said she feels "dread" at the prospect of spending more time in lockdown. "I can’t think about the future, I just have to be in the present. I haven’t gambled since [the first lockdown], but I am struggling, and it is hard."
Research from the Gambling Commission shows that during the first lockdown, almost half of "engaged" gamblers (48%) turned from "land-based activities" like visiting bookies or betting on sports matches, to online games where, experts warn, more addictive products are found.
The Addiction Recovery Agency (ARA), which supports gambling addicts in Wales, is worried this may lead to an increase in people needing help.
Development Officer Diana Yorath said, "Initially during the first lockdown, we saw a downturn in the number of clients that were coming to us for help. That started to increase when we came out of lockdown. We would envisage that once we come through this period there's the potential upturn for people to come to us then."
The UK Government is conducting a review of the 2005 Gambling Act, which will see tougher regulations imposed on the industry.
Swansea MP Carolyn Harris leads an All-Party Parliamentary Group for gambling related harm. She said the additional pressures on people during the last year will have led to an increase in the number of people turning to gambling.
"It’s become a problem which a lot of people have within their family and friends and not even realise", she said.
"It’s what I’ve always called a hidden addiction because it’s one of those things that physically you don’t see it until there’s so much damage done - that the house is repossessed or you’ve lost your family, or tragically too many cases you’ve lost your life."
In December 2020, a Parliamentary report found that 60% of the industry’s profits come from just five percent of customers.
Brigid Simmonds from the Betting and Gaming Council told the programme betting companies are willing to sacrifice profit to make gambling safer - and are "trying to raise standards." She told ITV Wales that the industry has been giving £10m a year for the last 20 years to fund research, education and treatment.
She added that larger companies have committed to spending a further £100m over the next four years. "They are already cutting their profits", she said. "They are putting more money into this, and all of the codes we introduce will cost them money. But they really care about making sure that gambling is safe."
The Gambling Commission has recently imposed new measures to make gambling online safer. They include slowing down game play, and preventing companies from preventing a loss as a win. Diana Yorath said, "A mobile phone is now a casino, or a bingo hall, or a betting shop and you can gamble 24/7. It's grown really quickly and we need to get the word out there that gambling can cause harm."
Carolyn Harris is calling for affordability screening to be introduced, and advertising to be restricted. "The industry is responsible for creating these mental health issues", she said.
"These people are vulnerable, and they just keep being bombarded with stuff that says carry on carry on carry on. It’s like giving them free drugs. Since 2005, the Gambling Act has given the industry free reign to make as much money as they possibly could, and boy have they made the most of that situation."
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