Blood on their hands

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th January, 2020)

Eighteen months ago, Kevin Sluman was out on his boat trawling for fish in the Bristol Channel, delighted to have his son Aaron back from London and working alongside him in the summer sunshine.

By chance, he noticed a Bet365 app on his son’s smartphone. ‘I told him that if he was gambling, there was only one winner and it wouldn’t be him,’ recalls Kevin. 

‘I can still see him standing there saying not to worry, he only placed a bet every now and then.’

Four months later, Kevin was captaining the boat again when his mobile phone rang. It was Aaron’s mother, calling to tell him that their son was dead.

Aaron had killed himself after losing £750 in one night, tortured by a secret compulsion for online gambling that destroyed his life.

‘I still can’t believe it,’ says Kevin, 49. ‘He was such a lovely lad. He loved being outdoors and never did anyone harm.’

Aaron’s suicide has left Kevin in dark despair, furious with gambling firms that make vast profits by preying on people such as his son. 

‘I thought the world of him and it hurts me so much to know he could not tell me about his addiction.’ 

Aaron was just 23 – a young man at the start of his adult life. The same age as Joshua Jones, who was finishing his first year working with a major accountancy firm when he jumped from a ninth floor balcony, tormented by his gambling habit.

One year younger than Jack Ritchie, who began betting with his school dinner money in Sheffield and who ended his life in Vietnam where he was working as an English teacher, unable to break free from the cruel grip of a British gambling firm’s marketing, even though he was thousands of miles from home.

Two years younger than Chris Bruney, who looked to have the world at his feet with a £60,000-a-year job and a loving partner. He committed suicide after being lured back into betting through promotional tie-ups with football. 

And four years younger than sports fan Ryan Myers, who had seemed so happy on a family holiday but shortly afterwards killed himself in the flat he shared with his fiancee. On the floor near his body was a betting slip with the words: ‘Card declined.’

There are striking parallels with these terrible stories of young men who start betting as teenagers, become addicted to the hypnotic ‘thrills’ of high-speed online gambling, and fail to break free as the industry’s technology and marketing grows ever smarter.

Charles and Liz Ritchie, who founded the Gambling With Lives campaign group after the death of their son Jack, say they have been approached by more than 50 families whose sons have killed themselves over the past five years.

‘When we meet other parents, we’re astounded by the similarities,’ says Charles. 

‘We are seeing so many deaths, disproportionately of bright young men whose sense of self-worth gets destroyed. This is the devastating impact of an activity sold as fun.’

Gambling is estimated to be the cause of 500 suicides in the UK a year. Just ten days ago, the Ritchies were contacted by another desperate parent, whose son had tried to end his life the night before.

This epidemic underscores the shame of the FA’s deal to give gambling firms the rights to stream cup matches to fans who open accounts or place bets – especially as the FA claims to be concerned about mental health issues.

Disgracefully, more than half of the teams in the top two tiers of English football wear shirts adorned with gambling firm logos, while TV sports coverage is overwhelmed with betting promotions.

Studies have found that children as young as eight can recall these commercials. Yet official data indicates 430,000 people in Britain are problem gamblers – 55,000 of those under 16. 

Those addicted are far more likely to play online games, which are responsible for a rising chunk of the £14.5 billion annual spend on betting in the UK.

At last, the authorities have started to tackle the problem. Last week, after reviews of the industry by the Gambling Commission and the Government, it was announced that from April people will be banned from using credit cards to place bets. It’s a small step forward.

Among the biggest winners from this huge business is Denise Coates, founder of Bet365 – she took home a £323 million pay package last year. It was the biggest sum collected by a British boss, breaking the record she set the year before with £265 million.

After Aaron Sluman’s death, his father discovered Bet365 was just one of 17 online firms used by his son. 

He also played fixed-odds betting terminals, super-fast machines that have been described as a form of turbocharged electronic roulette. The machines have belatedly had their maximum stake cut from £100 to £2.

Bank statements showed Aaron began gambling at 18, then wagered rising sums each year. 

At the time of his death, he owed £15,000 after taking out payday loans and borrowing from friends, despite even selling off his beloved fishing gear. 

‘It makes you so angry but it is not the debt,’ says Kevin, who lives near Swansea. ‘They just can’t control it – and now we know he carried this around for so long. We’re a close family but no one knew.’

It was a similar story for Joshua Jones, a musician and keen hockey player from Swindon, who seemed destined for a high-flying accountancy career. He began betting at 17 and by his death six years later he owed up to £30,000.

His family tried to help after Joshua admitted blowing his first term’s student loan in a week and taking out payday loans. 

They installed blocking software on his computer and took him to a specialist clinic, but he could not beat his compulsion.

‘He said once that when he was trying to stop, he would be sweating and physically shaking at night as he fought not to press the button on his phone,’ says his father Martin. ‘This showed he was in a very deep hole.’

After Joshua died, his father found he had sold the trombone he had played from childhood – and his email in-tray was littered with enticements from gambling firms.

Martin points to research by the Gambling Commission that found five per cent of betting addicts in a study tried to kill themselves the previous year –which equates to 21,500 adults and 2,750 children nationally on its own wider data.

‘The industry says only one per cent are harmed,’ he says. ‘I’m a civil engineer. Just imagine if I was being held accountable for death on a construction site and argued this was acceptable since it represented one per cent of people using my building?’

No one knows the exact numbers dying due to gambling but the lengthening list includes former grammar school pupil Lewis Keogh, 35, who committed suicide after racking up debts of £55,000; Philip Tomlinson, a well-liked supermarket boss from Manchester, who killed himself in secluded woodland aged 29; Daniel Clinkscales, a sales manager from Devon who fought his addiction before dying aged 35; Lee Murphy, hooked on fixed-odds betting terminals before his suicide aged 37; and Phil Stretton, from Burton upon Trent, who died aged just 30.

Some argue that coroners should be compelled to notify authorities when suicide is linked to gambling, ensuring more accurate figures can be compiled.

Martin believes his son’s despair was driven by fear he would never defeat his demons rather than by debts. 

‘He died of shame after yet again losing his month’s salary in a single day chasing gambling losses,’ he told the inquest.

Significantly, one family did not want to talk on the record in order to prevent the victim’s sons learning the truth about their father who killed himself. 

In another case, a Cornish father of three with a secret gambling problem left behind a note after his suicide saying: ‘The monster inside me has controlled me for years and everyone will be better off without me.’

His wife paid tribute to her ‘hard-working, caring’ husband, adding he had secretly used a betting app on his mobile. ‘A few clicks – that’s all it takes,’ she said.

Herein lies the problem. The gambling industry was unfettered by the Blair Government in 2007 just as it was shifting online, becoming easily available on computers and phones while at the same time exploiting social media tricks to target, capture and retain customers.

Blair claimed deregulation would protect children and insisted there was ‘no evidence’ it would lead to more addiction. But as one critic said later, this was analogue reform at dawn of the digital age – and it has backfired disastrously. 

So we see relentless advertising for rapid-fire online games designed to drain cash, often with offers of free bets to entice new players. 

Once signed up, people can be ruthlessly targeted with personalised texts and emails, making it harder to resist.

‘This is fine when you sell coffee, but not when alerting people to gambling opportunities,’ says Prof Gerda Reith, an expert on the betting industry. ‘New technology and marketing techniques are making risky products more dangerous.’

She believes firms play on people’s cognitive biases with high-speed games, ‘near misses’ (when you almost win but just fall short of getting all matching symbols), free bets and flashing lights. 

‘We’re told their algorithms are not good at detecting problem gamblers but they seem pretty good at finding big spenders,’ she says.

Most victims are men, more likely to be risk-takers and lured by sports betting. But Kay Wadsworth lost her daughter Kimberly, who killed herself at 32. 

She thinks her gambling was sparked by depression after her father’s death coincided with relationship trouble in 2015 – and then surged beyond restraint, even spending £36,000 from a property sale in just two weeks.

‘She became very angry and the more the debt grew, the more she gambled,’ says Kay. ‘It escalated out of control and I didn’t know where to turn. As a parent, you blame yourself. She died before her mum and that destroys me.’

Kimberly, a marketing executive from West Yorkshire, spent so much in casinos and online that she was given VIP status, which showers perks as rewards for heavy users. The Gambling Commission is considering a ban on such schemes.

Experts accept gambling can be addictive and the NHS is opening a series of specialist clinics, including one for children. ‘There are too many stories of lives lost and families destroyed,’ said chief executive Sir Simon Stevens last year.

Like some drugs, gambling releases a surge of the feelgood chemical dopamine. 

Talking to bereaved parents, it was noticeable how several victims had a big early win, which seems to act like the first enticing hit of heroin.

‘It is dangerous to win early because you experience a great high and chase it for the rest of your life,’ says Prof David Nutt, a neuroscientist and former government drugs adviser.

This was the case for Matt Zarb-Cousin, a former spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – he now campaigns for safer gambling. 

He was only stopped from suicide by the intervention of his parents after he become hooked as an A-level student, losing £2,500 in one day. 

‘I was chasing the buzz of winning but became addicted. When you come out of the trance, you hit reality. But when you’re not gambling, it is all you think about.’

Zarb-Cousin took out bank loans and sold possessions on eBay. ‘It’s the only addiction you can rationalise by telling yourself you are just a minute away from winning it all back and solving all the problems it has caused.’

The gambling industry insists it has responded positively to concerns on safety while increasing funding for public awareness campaigns and specialist charities.

‘We continue to listen to concerns and act to ensure a safe, enjoyable environment which consumers and the public expect,’ says Brigid Simmonds, chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council.

Fine words. Yet one industry term talks about ‘playing to extinction’, which means until punters’ funds have dried up. What a chilling phrase in view of the fact that families across Britain suffer the trauma of sudden and unexpected loss.

‘I never knew gambling could be so addictive,’ says Kevin Sluman. ‘I can’t watch TV any more since these firms advertise all the time. It’s made out to be fun but how many more people must suffer like my son?’

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