Betting firms could be taxed to pay for addiction treatment, the head of the NHS has warned, as he launched a new service to help children with gambling problems.
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.
Mr Stevens said: “The links between problem gambling and stress, depression and mental health problems are growing and there are too many stories of lives lost and families destroyed.
“This action shows just how seriously the NHS takes the threat of gambling addiction, even in young people, but we need to be clear – 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.
“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.
The Gambling Commission estimates there are 55,000 children and young people aged 11 to 16 with a gambling problem, of which 450,000 are gambling regularly.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I have seen first-hand the devastating impact gambling addiction can have on people’s lives and I am determined to do everything I can to help anyone affected get the help and support they need.
“We know too many young people face their lives being blighted by problem gambling – so these new clinics will also look at what more can be done to help them.”
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.”
A Gambling Commission report published last winter found that 14% of 11 to 16-year-olds had spent their own money on gambling in the previous week, spending on average £16 each.
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.
Wes Himes, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, said: “We support the creation of new NHS gambling treatment clinics which will supplement existing services delivered by Gordon Moody Association, GamCare’s 120 treatment centres located throughout the UK and their youth outreach programme, the National Gambling Helpline, YGAM and Netline.
“Through continued funding by our industry over more than 20 years, these charitable services are able to provide free of charge treatment, support and advice services for anyone affected by gambling.”