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Spinning into Oblivion

One night a few weeks ago, having paused my Freeview+ box as I was busy doing something, I found myself flicking through the five (no longer) ‘terrestrial’ channels. These can be considered the prime channels in the UK although how long this will be the case once full digital switchover is completed and ingrained viewing habits have adjusted is open to debate. For now, though, these are the channels that attract the highest viewing figures and that most people, almost by default, will turn to first in their quest for televisual nourishment.

On BBC1 there was football, on C4 I can’t really remember. On BBC2 there was a film starring Val Kilmer and I found myself muttering “What is this rubbish with Val Kilmer in it?”, a phrase said every second by someone somewhere across the globe. ITV and Five, however, were both showing the same type of programme, that being TV roulette. These programmes involve attractive presenters presiding over a ‘real table’ where viewers are invited to try their luck every two minutes or so. There are graphics explaining how to bet, different types of bet, table history and also the lucky winners. Meanwhile the presenters gush enthusiastically about how much fun it all is, ever present smiles plastered on their happy faces. But is it all just a bit of fun?

I was watching at just turned midnight on a Saturday, a time when many people will still be up, having returned from the pub or just enjoying the chance for a late night before the Sunday lay in, and here we had 40% of the main TV channels exhorting us to part with our money on a game where the odds are stacked against us. At one point the presenter on the ITV show, Kay, gleefully told us that Jackpot247 had ‘paid out’ nearly £14m in March alone, as if it was some kind of philanthropic organisation such as those headed by socially concerned Victorian capitalists in days gone by. And you could register and receive ‘free money’ to play with! And your first deposit would be matched 100% by Jackpot247! It’s almost as if they’ll be paying you to enjoy all the fun of the spinning wheel. There are other businesses that use the offer of free or cheap initial purchase in order to entice you to use their services, it’s a well known strategy – money off deals at gyms, cheap magazine subscriptions, and of course, drug dealers.

What? Drug dealers, you say? How can you equate a harmless bit of fun with an ‘industry’ that causes so much harm and despair? Look! The smiley woman is smiling, there’s free money, and the on screen stats show us that people are winning. If we register now we could soon see our names up there, Kay told us that, and she’s attractive and smiley. Just as not all drug users are junkies, not all who gamble are compulsive gamblers. There are those who will use narcotics to enhance their fun or help wind down, and there are others who see games of chance as just that, games. Put the money down and you win or lose, either a brief thrill or slight disappointment but nothing more. But what about those who come to need more?

Russell Brand recently stated that addiction is an illness and should be treated as such. He’s right – it’s a mental illness. Be it drugs, drink, gambling or whatever poison that grabs you, a chronic need to indulge in something that is harmful to a person and those around them cannot simply be dismissed as a ‘choice’. In the most severe cases people die because of their addictions, and people do not ‘choose’ to die unless they are suffering and can see no other way to end the pain, or their illness has clouded all reason and they can no longer be held accountable for their actions. Just as someone with a chronic physical illness needs outside help, addicts must be considered similarly vulnerable.

So what drives this illness? There may be different factors but a major player is likely to be a pre-existing vulnerability to mental health problems. Many addicts will already suffer from or be pre-disposed to depression, low self esteem, or anxiety to name but a few conditions. Then we factor in socio-economic conditions and environment, chuck the whole lot in a pot, and a recipe for personal disaster is merrily bubbling away. The final, key ingredient is availability, and for compulsive gamblers this has become the unkindest cut of all.

There is a junction in north London N17 where a road called The Roundway meets Downhills Way, the junction crossed by Lordship Lane. On one corner there used to stand a pub which is now a Paddy Power bookmakers. The opposite corner has a relatively new block of flats at the bottom of which is a Ladbrokes, despite prospective buyers being told at the time of development the retail space would be filled by a Tesco Express or something of that ilk. Just a few doors along from Paddy Power there is a William Hill, again relatively new. Within 50 yards of each other there are three large bookmakers. This junction falls within the borough of Haringey which also contains Wood Green High Road. The stretch of the High Road between Turnpike Lane and Wood Green tube stations, a five minute walk, has eight bookmakers, three of them being Ladbrokes and two William Hill – oh, there are also three ‘amusement’ arcades on the same stretch of road. It has been estimated that Haringey has more than 40 bookmakers in its environs with neighbouring Hackney having a similar number.

It used to be that in order to play roulette you would have to make a trip to one of the few casinos in a city centre, be signed in or recommended, undergo an application process and a waiting period – now you can just visit your local bookies or watch late night television. It doesn’t stop there as the television ‘games’ are all based on websites which can be logged onto and played upon at any time of the day – of course, the high street bookies all have a significant internet presence as well, so you can have ‘fun’ on the roulette table every minute of every day of the year. Of all addictions gambling has become the most accessible, and it is now focused on those who can least afford it.

I mention above socio-economic factors and environment and it is no coincidence that bookmakers are targeting more deprived areas such as Haringey and Hackney. It is in these areas that desperation and a need to ‘escape’ will be found, and the chance of a big win at the local bookies can be irresistible. A combination of poverty, relative or otherwise, need, the aspiration foisted on us by society and availability can be a potent mix, just look at the enduring popularity of the Lotto and its accompanying scratchcards (speaking of which, a current advert joyfully tells us of 2 billion winning cards since their inception, no mention of how many losing cards). As a comparison with Wood Green High Road, the (notoriously) affluent Hampstead High Street has one bookies, a Ladbrokes divested of its ubiquitous red livery in order to ‘fit in’.

People living with day to day money problems will be more prone to anxiety or depression; those who take in the lifestyle aspirations thrust upon them by television and other media and measure their own lives by these images will be taking a hit to their self worth; and there will be people already suffering whose conditions will be exacerbated by their circumstances. Looking for a way of escape but don’t fancy drugs or booze, well now you have “the crack cocaine of gambling” mere yards from your doorstep: no need for applications or waiting periods, just walk in and you can slap a hundred quid on the ‘tables’ straightaway.

As the societal/financial pressures that foster this addiction grow, and the opportunities to feed it increase, small advances have been made in the treatment of problem gambling. A national centre which views the problem as the illness it is and treats it accordingly has been established in central London. The centre does not only apply clinical methods to ‘cure’ problem gambling, it also addresses the other, very real mental health causes that often trigger the effect. There are other centres in… oh, wait, there are no other centres. Never mind, people can always try to solve their problems or escape from them by searching for that elusive win – for those who suffer from this addiction there really is no other choice.

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