‘Asleep at the wheel’: Government accused of failing to regulate ‘parasitic’ gambling industry
The parents of a gambling addict who took his own life have accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” in their failure to regulate an industry they describe as “predatory” and “parasitic”.
It comes after a landmark inquest into the suicide of Jack Ritchie, 24, found that regulation, NHS treatment and government warnings about the dangers of gambling were “woefully inadequate”.
The inquest in Sheffield was the first of its kind to examine the link between suicide and gambling and the way it is regulated.
It found that while there were some warnings about the dangers of gambling and limited help for addicts, “such warnings, information and treatment were woefully inadequate and failed to meet Jack’s needs”.
Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said Mr Ritchie’s death in November 2017 is a “stark reminder of the terrible consequences that can flow from an addiction to gambling”.
Mr Urpeth told the hearing that while he couldn’t say gambling caused Jack’s death, as all suicides are complex, he said “gambling contributed to his death”. He added: “Sadly, this addiction spiralled out of control and led to his suicide.”
Reacting to the ruling, Mr Ritchie’s mother Liz told Sky News: “They are a parasitic industry, and we have a government that is asleep at the wheel. They have been collusive with these parasites.
“We’ve seen it with tobacco – these are addictive products, that was the result of this inquest. So, we have to ask ourselves why the government is continuing to collude in the idea that we should be advertising products that so clearly kill our young people.”
Mr Ritchie’s father Charlies added: “The rulings today are seismic. They are a recognition of the failure of government and the dangers of gambling. It’s very clearly accepted, and there’s a very strong link which has been known for decades about the relationship between gambling and suicide.”
The coroner said he will be writing to three government departments with warnings about how future deaths can be prevented and particularly highlighted the need for more training for GPs about gambling disorders.
Mr Urpeth told the hearing that the “evidence showed there were still significant gaps” in provision for gambling disorders and warnings about the dangers of gambling. The coroner said: “Jack did not understand that being addicted to gambling was not his fault.
“That lack of understanding led to feelings of shame and hopelessness which, in time, led to him feeling suicidal.”
Mr Ritchie was working as a teacher in Vietnam when he wrote an email to his parents in November 2017 saying he was “past the point of controlling himself”. He felt the only way out of his gambling addiction was to take his own life.
His gambling had started when, aged 17, he won big on a fixed-odds betting machine. But his luck would run out as he turned to online casino gambling.
While there have been rules brought in to limit stakes on machines in bookies’ premises, the regulators haven’t caught up with online products.
Campaigners say new online games should be subject to regulation before they go on the market, rather than waiting to see what damage they may cause before deciding if they are too addictive.
Liz Ritchie said: “There’s no testing system – that’s the point. With most things that kill people there is some kind of regulatory system where you check a product for safety before you inflict it on the public. And what happens at the moment is we are playing catch up the whole time – you inflict it on the public, see who dies, and then say maybe we should do something.”
Former addict, and director of Clean UP Gambling, Matt Zarb-Cousin, agrees that regulators have not kept up with the industry.
He said: “With online slots there’s no limit to the stakes. With online roulette there’s no limit to the stakes; there’s no proper affordability checks. So we’ve basically put a casino in everyone’s pocket.
“The regulatory framework is not fit for purpose. It is not taking into account that there is a risk to life for people who engage with gambling. It’s promoting it as if it’s a funfair when there is something much more sinister going on.”
The Gambling Commission, which acts as a regulator, told Sky News: “Jack’s death was a tragedy and we have met and spoken with Jack’s parents on several occasions to understand and agree how we can learn from their experience to inform the way we work.
“These conversations, along with those of others who have experienced harm, strengthens our commitment to protect consumers and make Britain’s gambling market fairer and safer.
“Since Jack’s death in 2017 we have accelerated our drive to make gambling safer. This has included increased enforcement and compliance activity, clamped down on online slots products, increased online age and ID verification and strengthened customer interaction requirements, banned gambling on credit cards, forced operators to take part in a national online self-exclusion scheme and brought in new rules to stamp out irresponsible VIP customer practices.”
A spokesperson for the Betting and Gaming Council said: “Any suicide is a terrible tragedy and we are not in any position, nor would it be right, for us to comment on any tragic individual case. As the mental health charity MIND and others acknowledge the reasons behind any suicide are ‘complex and can have lots of different causes’.
“The BGC’s largest members committed to spend an additional £100m for the treatment of problem gambling, including treatment for a minority of those who are suffering from serious addiction, between 2019 and 2023.”
Liz and Charles Ritchie, who have formed a campaign group called Gambling With Lives, say much more is needed.
The coroner agrees and his report being sent to the government on Monday will set out how to prevent deaths like Mr Ritchie’s. It will inform a government review of gambling laws, expected to come out this spring.
A government spokesperson said: “The tragic death of Jack Ritchie is a stark reminder of the devastating consequences harmful gambling can have on individuals, their families and friends.
“We must not underestimate the harms which can occur and the need to provide effective support and treatment.
“We are committed to learning lessons from this inquest and to preventing others from losing their lives in similar circumstances.
“We will be publishing a White Paper as part of our review of gambling legislation in the coming weeks.”
:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email email@example.com in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.