The NHS England director of mental health has warned betting companies not to exploit the return of televised football with “reckless” advertising campaigns that could cause more problem gambling while health service resources are stretched responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Claire Murdoch, who has overseen the establishment of 14 clinics across the country to treat people with addiction and mental ill health because of gambling, said the service will struggle to cope with “avoidable harm” caused by gambling marketing.
“The return of football will be a moment of excitement for millions but it must not be an excuse for gambling firms to open the floodgates of addiction,” Murdoch said.
“Plenty of people safely enjoy a flutter, but in the NHS we’re increasingly seeing people in need of specialist help after they fall victim to excessive and aggressive marketing by betting companies.
“The NHS is stepping up to the plate to offer specialist treatment, but with my colleagues having spent this year focused on protecting people from a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, the last thing NHS staff and patients need is for avoidable harm to be caused by reckless advertising and behaviour from the gambling industry as normal life begins to resume.
“What we don’t want to see over the next 48 hours is firms kicking off more aggressive advertising campaigns to make up for lost time.”
Faced with the prospect of a government review of the 2005 Gambling Act, which deregulated gambling from years of restrictions, betting companies have introduced some reforms, including further measures during lockdown.
Michael Dugher, chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, which represents gambling companies, issued a robust response to Murdoch, pointing to the “whistle-to-whistle ban” on TV advertising during live sport, pledging that at least 20% of TV and radio advertising will promote safer gambling, and a promised £100m for research, education and treatment.
“Rather than trying to once again grab alarmist headlines with her deliberately incendiary media interventions, Claire should take up our offer, made to her back in January, to speak with the industry about her concerns,” Dugher said.
Murdoch is concerned that the whistle-to-whistle ban is not matched by a ban on online marketing, particularly on mobile phone apps, used by many people with accounts, who can bet rapidly on outcomes during matches. In January she wrote directly to major gambling companies Bet365, Betfred, GVC Holdings, Flutter Entertainment and William Hill, castigating some of their practices and saying there were “increasingly clear and worrying links between gambling and mental ill health”.