Do problem gamblers need more protection? – BBC News

  • By Jeremy Ball and Dan Martin
  • BBC news

image source, Annie Ashton


Mrs Ashton said her husband was a smart, happy and cheerful man

Luke Ashton’s death has raised tough questions about whether more needs to be done to stop gamblers from sinking into spiraling debt.

The 40-year-old man, from Leicester, committed suicide in April 2021 after racking up huge debts by betting online.

Coroner Ivan Cartwright said at the end of his inquest on Thursday he was concerned that Betfair, the company Ashton used to place his bets, had not intervened meaningfully when his bets soared in the weeks before his death.

Analysis of his betting showed that he started gambling more frequently, and risking higher amounts.

She often places bets early in the morning and late at night on sports including Austrian greyhound racing and women’s netball, as she chases her losses while at the same time planning to end her life.

He excluded himself from Betfair Exchange, where he placed nearly all of his bets, for six months.

However, he later relapsed and returned to gambling during the pandemic lockdown – a fact he has kept hidden from his wife.

image source, Annie Ashton


Mrs Ashton said the coroner’s conclusion vindicated her long-held position that gambling caused her husband’s death.

The coroner said he was “confused” by the algorithm, used by Betfair to assess customer risk, which had led to Mr Ashton being deemed “low risk” rather than marking him as a problem gambler.

He said opportunities were missed to pause, curb or stop Mr Ashton betting and Betfair should have done more.

Betfair said it met all regulatory standards in place at the time, but acknowledged, in hindsight, it should have done more to help Mr Ashton.

Mr Ashton’s death has once again highlighted the difficult balancing act between supporting the commercial ambitions of betting companies and the need to keep gamblers safe from harm.

The psychology of the problem gambler

Prof Mark Griffiths, of Nottingham Trent University, has researched problem gambling for 37 years and says the financial loss makes it more damaging than any other addiction.

He told the BBC that the psychology of problem gamblers meant they often continued to place bets after a heavy loss – even if they were spending their personal finances beyond their means.

“In their minds, gamblers don’t constantly lose – they feel constantly on the verge of winning,” he says.

“They think ‘if the reel goes one more step, I’ll win the money’. It’s what we call near miss psychology.”

image source, Getty’s image


The government says there are around 300,000 problem gamblers in the UK

Prof Griffiths added: “The great thing about gambling today is that companies own every click of what you do online.

“They know how much you spend, what games you play, how long you play… that can be used to very positive advantage now.

“All major gambling companies use artificial intelligence to predict and spot online gambling problems”.

AI technology is behind new protections introduced by the Gambling Commission last September, which require gambling companies to monitor their customers’ bets, lest they get out of hand.

The commission has promised tough action against operators who do not do enough to prevent problem gambling.


Annie Ashton hopes the coroner’s conclusion will spark change in the gambling industry

A spokesperson for the Gambling Commission told the BBC: “Over the past two years (since April 2021) the Commission has resolved 42 enforcement cases with operators paying out in excess of £90 million for regulatory failures.

“This is unprecedented action against gambling operators but we are now starting to see signs of improvement.

“We are currently in the process of implementing the Government’s recent white paper.

“As part of this we will consult on safety measures to ensure bonus and incentive offers do not lead to excessive or harmful gambling, establish further product controls for safer online gaming, and require operators to identify and take action for consumers.” the financially vulnerable and to tackle significantly unaffordable gambling through frictionless checks that don’t offend consumers.”

Have new gambling protections gone far enough?

Prof Griffiths said the UK now had some of the strictest restrictions in the world, and most people gambled without a problem.

But he believes “free bonus bets”, which are still permitted under the new regulations, should be limited or even stopped.

“For the problem gambler, these are the things that drive you or trigger you to start over,” he says.

He also believed voluntary control should become mandatory.

“I’d like to see mandatory play-breaks, so if you’ve played for an hour, your account will be closed for a certain amount of time,” he said.

“I would like to see setting a mandatory limit, so when you go to the site you have to enter how much you are willing to lose, and you can also set a time limit as well”.

How many are affected by problem gambling?

The government says there are around 300,000 problem gamblers in the UK, and the highest rates in online casino gaming.

Campaign group Gambling With Lives says it supports more than 80 families who “lost people to suicide due to gambling”.

Its strategy director, Will Prochaska, said the issues raised in the Ashton case were all too familiar.

“It’s surprising that the operators didn’t intervene when we thought they should,” he said.

“And we see time and time again that the Gambling Commission fines operators across the country for similar failures that have been explored in this case, and unfortunately the Gambling Commission fines don’t seem to change the behavior of operators, so we urge them to start revoking licenses.

“The most surprising thing is that the industry continues to play this narrative that only a small number of individuals are at risk of harm related to gambling. And that’s not true.

“Anyone can become addicted to a product that has been designed to be addictive and then marketed to people… so we have a real crisis on our hands.”

Flutter UKI chief executive – Betfair’s parent company – Ian Brown said: “Flutter UKI is committed to doing the right thing and creating an environment for customers to enjoy our products in a safe and sustainable way.

“Over the last three years we have made significant changes to our controls, including mandatory deposit limits for customers who return to our site after a self-exclusion period.

“We hold ourselves to the absolute highest standards in the industry and we will, of course, incorporate additional learning from (Mr Ashton’s) tragic case into our systems and processes.”

If you are affected by any of the issues in this story you can go to the BBC Action Line for help.

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