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1-in-30 suffer from problem gambling in Ireland – ESRI

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New figures from the ESRI indicate that there is far more problem gambling in Ireland than previously believed.

A new study estimates that 1-in-30 adults in Ireland suffer from problem gambling, which is ten times higher than a previous measure from 2019.

Previous estimates on the prevalence of gambling were based on face-to-face interviews, but this ESRI study was done anonymously online, using a representative sample of 2,850 adults.

Researchers say the new 1-in-30 figure closely matches the rate of problem gambling that people report seeing among their friends and family. While the amount that people reported spending on gambling compares well with national figures for industry revenue.

The ESRI said the new figure would equate to 130,000 adults with problem gambling in Ireland, suggesting that the problem is more widespread than previously thought.

Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne has described his Gambling Regulation Bill as an “urgent” piece of legislation that will address problem gambling in a number of different ways.

The “exclusion register” is an “essential” part of it, which he said allows people to be able to hold off on impulse and provide space to get the help they need if addiction arises.

The Fianna Fáil TD told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland: “One of the things that people who don’t have the addiction or problem don’t understand, is it is not about winning money, but a sense of winning is far more important, that release of dopamine. That is an essential element of it.

“Our laws are completely out of date. They’re from the 1930s and 1950s. They’re not fit for purpose or don’t even exist in some areas.”

People with problem gambling were found to spend, on average, more than €1,000 per month on gambling. The report said this means that more than a quarter of all money spent on gambling in Ireland is spent by people with problem gambling.

Online gambling accounts for 60% of the total gambling spend of people with problem gambling, with in-person gambling accounting for the rest.

People aged under 50 had higher rates of problem gambling, with those in their 30s estimated to have the highest rate.

Pete Lunn, a research associate at the ESRI, said there is problem gambling “across multiple types of gambling”.

He told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland: “It (gambling) is not all online either, more than a third of the spending of problem gamblers is in-person.

“It is spread across multiple types of gambling, you would find betting on sports, on bingo.

“There is a particular draw I would say for slot machines and casinos for problem gamblers, but that is a fairly small effect.

“What we are saying is that it’s widespread and widespread across all forms of gambling that we measured.”

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Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Professor Colin O’Gara, Consultant Psychiatrist and head of addiction services at St John of God Hospital, said he was not surprised the rates of problem gambling are much higher than had been indicated in recent years.

“The reality is now that we know it is much higher than that,” he said.

Professor O’Gara said the latest figures “tallies” with what they are seeing in the clinics in terms of the harm it is causing to individuals.

“This is a disorder that is characterised by serious medical sequelae, serious mental health issues,” he said.

“It is just relieving on many ways that this is a large scale study that shows these problems.”

He said because of “a complete lack of regulation” over the last 15 years, people who are vulnerable are being harmed by gambling products.

The professor added that he hopes understanding around behavioural health problems will improve.

Gambling Regulatory Authority of Ireland’s Chief Executive Officer Designate Anne Marie Caulfield described the figures as stark.

She said the proposed social impact fund, which would be used for education, awareness programmes and research, would bring Ireland closer in line with other EU countries.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News, Ms Caulfield said the legislation included a number of measures in relation to advertising.

“One of those would be that advertising would be prohibited before the watershed, that’s to protect children and vulnerable people. Problem gamblers is a very strong theme in the draft legislation. Also that advertising wouldn’t appear as attractive to children or can’t appear as if it’s a way to get rich quick scheme”.

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The study estimates that a further 279,000 adults show moderate evidence of problem gambling.

This means that they suffer several negative behaviours or experiences associated with their gambling, such as borrowing to fund their gambling, – but fall short of being classified as having problem gambling.

The data, collected in August 2023, records that 75% of adults spent money on at least one form of gambling in the month prior to the survey, with a third doing so online.

The most common forms of gambling were lotteries and scratch cards, followed by betting on horses, greyhounds, and other sports.

The study was commissioned through the Implementation Team supporting the establishment of the new Gambling Regulatory Authority of Ireland and the Department of Justice.

The gambling bill, which is currently before the Oireachtas, sets out the framework and legislative basis for the establishment of a new, independent statutory body called Údarás Rialála Cearrbhachais na hÉireann (the Gambling Regulatory Authority of Ireland).

The bill is expected to complete its journey through the Oireachtas this year.

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