How ‘responsible gambling’ message blames the victims of addiction

“Jack died because he didn’t understand his problem. He blamed himself”

When 24-year-old Jack Ritchie took his own life in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2017, a note to his parents read: “It’s happened again, I’m not coming back from this one.”

Jack, a ‘wonderful, warm and happy’ young man from Sheffield in the United Kingdom, had spent his last seven years battling a gambling addiction he could neither comprehend nor conquer.

He tried everything he could think of, banning himself from betting shops in his home city, installing blocking software on his computer and even moving to a different country. Finally, in despair, Jack took the ultimate tragic step that hundreds of gambling addicts take in the UK each year.

I am talking to Jack’s parents, Liz and Charles, who, along with other bereaved families and friends, established the charity Gambling With Lives following Jack’s death.

We are discussing the gambling industry’s ‘responsible gambling’ initiative, a set of social responsibility tools which allows players to restrict their own play.

At least, that is the theory.

But for Liz and Charles the concept of ‘responsible gambling’ is an insult to their son’s memory.

“I feel abused as a mother by that message,” says Liz. “Was Jack an irresponsible gambler? Is every other person who takes his or her life also an irresponsible gambler?

“The language the gambling industry uses is as manipulative as the games themselves. The industry keeps focus on the people rather than the product, but if the product is designed to be addictive, people will become addicted. Online slots are incredibly addictive, but they are marketed as being safe.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been asked, was Jack a drug addict? Did he play truant from school? As though there was something wrong with him or he had some weakness — the implication is that it was his own fault and it doesn’t matter that our son is dead.

“It’s a form of abuse, exposing young people to something that is addictive and then blaming them for their own addiction. Jack died because he didn’t understand. He blamed himself. That is the responsible gambling message.”

The gambling industry is fiercely defensive of its responsible gambling initiative, frequently pushing ways in which gamblers can restrict play, including deposit limits, time-outs and self-exclusions. The Gambling Commission, which regulates, also recently banned the use of credit cards.

Meanwhile, the Betting and Gaming Council this summer launched a £10m national gambling education and support programme, which aims to provide all 11–19-year-olds in the UK with access to gambling awareness education.

Industry figures argue that interventions on individual problem gamblers must be ‘evidence-based’. They also claim the number of problem gamblers in the UK is stable — at 0.7 per cent — despite a recent YouGov survey suggesting addiction rates may be much higher, at 2.7 per cent, or 1.4 million people, with up to five million people in the UK experiencing harm linked to gambling.

Matt Gaskell, clinical lead and consultant psychologist for the NHS Northern Gambling Service, disputes the accuracy of these figures and agrees damage caused by gambling is widespread.

He says: “We know gambling harm reaches way beyond those with an addiction, as well as into families and communities. Gambling harm costs a community more than it contributes.

“The responsible gambling narrative is little more than a public relations strategy for the gambling industry; a smokescreen so they can say they are committed to reducing harm while carrying on with business as usual. Abandoning this mantra is long overdue.

“It supports their strategy and growth and has been conveniently applied by the industry and its allies, including those in research, education and treatment who are funded by the industry.

“By focusing on those who are already experiencing harm, it suggests prevention is impossible. We need an approach that frames gambling harm as preventable. Responsible gambling frames problem gamblers, and not problem products or problematic commercial practices, as the issue.”

Liz and Charles are determined to see gambling operators take ultimate responsibility. “We hear that message of the industry protecting ‘vulnerable people’, as if there is a small group of people out there that is different, weird or affected,” says Charles.

“But our experience from talking to other Gambling with Lives families is that people who end up dying were not vulnerable in any conventional sense of the word.

“Gambling addicts are simply normal people who have had these products thrust at them — usually as children. Gambling addicts are not understood, and that’s what happened to Jack. We didn’t understand the problem and therefore we couldn’t help our child understand.

“The doctors and therapists didn’t understand so they couldn’t help him. Nobody links the products to the addiction — like we do with smoking.”

“We have to change the narrative. We can’t continue to blame the victims.”

Change is increasingly likely for the industry, with a Government review of the 2005 Gambling Act predicted for later this year. Changes could include a maximum bet of between £1 and £5 for online stakes, £100 deposit limits and an independent Ombudsman to deal with complaints.

For Liz and Charles, however, that is not enough — the messaging must also change. Charles says: “These changes would be a big step but none of them is enough on its own. You need a whole suite of regulation, and you need product safety classification and public health messaging. The public needs to know the dangers.”