What’s the difference between drugs and gambling?

Published by The i paper (27 January, 2020)

Lewis Keogh seemed to have everything. He had a good job, his own flat in Leeds, a loving family and close friends. One day he told his father Peter that he had ‘a bit of a gambling problem’ while they watched a football match. ‘It was just in passing,’ said the retired publishing executive from County Fermanagh. ‘I knew him as a very grounded guy, very strong-minded, and he said he’d kicked it so it seemed ok.’  But it was not. Lewis, like many problem gamblers, hid the shame and torment over his inability to control a compulsion that led to huge losses.

At the age of 34, this likeable man took his own life. One more tragedy tied to an industry that has grown richer, smarter and far more pervasive in society as it exploits technological advances to snare players and swell profits. After his death, Peter understood why his son was playing their shared online Scrabble games in the middle of the night. ‘He could not sleep since he was playing online poker.’ Now Headingley, his former amateur football team, wear the logo of Gambling With Lives, a campaign group set up by bereaved parents, on their shirts. What lovely contrast to all those professional clubs with grubby gambling shirt deals.

Lewis left behind a note with ‘Addiction is cruel’ written in big letters. He was right – it is a horrible affliction for any human being to suffer, especially when the hook is so hard to evade. I have spoken to many addicts, seen too many lives wrecked by this awful condition. Yet just imagine if Burnley was backed by LoveHeroin rather than LoveBet, or Stoke City wore Drugs365 not Bet365 on their shirts? Sounds daft, doesn’t it? Yet since talking to Peter and other parents who faced similar plight after writing a column last month on our corrosive betting culture, I have been wondering if there is really much difference between gambling and drug-taking?

Both activities start as something fun. In Lewis’s case, something as innocuous as playing the machines in an Enniskillen arcade every day while waiting for the bus back to his rural home aged twelve. For many people these things remain fun, a harmless way to pass time with pals that leaves little deep trace on their lives. But for a substantial minority, this ‘fun’ turns into something much darker, a devastating form of mental illness that can destroy families and careers. For a significant minority, this pastime proves fatal. They end up dead, whether through sudden overdose or sad suicide in some lonely spot.

The big difference is legal status. Betting used to be grudgingly allowed and tightly controlled until 2007, when Tony Blair foolishly unleashed the sector  just as online gaming turned it into an activity available at all times and for all ages. As one critic said, this was analogue reform at dawn of the digital age – and it proved disastrous as the industry adopted the tricks of social media to lure, capture and keep players. Now gambling is not just permitted but heavily promoted, spreading its tentacles through sports such as football that always seem to put money before morality. The legacy is an estimated 500 suicides a year – many of them young men, their sense of self-worth crushed by fear they can never escape the betting demon.

Drugs, by contrast, are banned – except for alcohol, of course. This is flawed policy. Look at the millions using them – or the falling prices and rising purity of cocaine. Drugs kill more people – in Britain, at least, since we are responsible for one-third of drug-related deaths in Western Europe due to political obsession with prohibition. Many die due to illegality, since users do not know what they ingest and are often scared to seek help. Then there is the linked violence as crooks fight to control a lucrative trade. Mike Barton, former chief constable of Durham, explained on BBC Question Time how prohibition inevitably leads to more violence and recruitment of children. ‘This is a Darwinian spiral of violence,’ he said. ‘We are never going to arrest ourselves out of this problem.’

Boris Johnson’s stance, like so many other politicians since Richard Nixon started the daft War on Drugs, is to promise tougher action. This only shows weakness, since the really tough action would be to push sensible reform that could save lives of citizens. But far easier to spout the usual hollow platitudes. So the prime minister recently told breakfast television: ‘I want to see crime come down. I want to see the county lines drugs gangs wound up….they are killing young kids.’ We all want to see crime come down, Boris Johnson. But I believe it is Westminster in effect killing kids with its stubborn refusal to reform failed policies, as highlighted so brilliantly by Barton.

These two popular pastimes leave a trail of devastated lives and dead bodies. Yet one is sanctioned by the state, even spraying vast sums of money around politics and sport; the other treated as a pariah, a prop for politicians to pose as hard guys even when they have dabbled themselves in the past. There are differences: one blots out mental pain, the other offers false hope. Yet the reality is that both these money-spinning activities should be treated in similar style: legal, yes, but tightly regulated, with children protected and marketing rigidly constrained like tobacco. Politicians should use the proceeds of high taxes on their products to fund major expansion of treatment facilities to help the inevitable casualties.

Ultimately there is one giant similarity between drugs and gambling: they show grotesque political failure with horrible and sometimes fatal consequences. What are the odds of Westminster waking up to rectify its mistakes? A long shot, I’d say – but happy to lose that bet.

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