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Gambling: Financial fun or costly excess?

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Media captionJustyn Larcombe: 'In three years I lost three quarters of a million pounds'

During January, millions of people will be attempting to curtail their vices by keeping to new year resolutions.

Stopping smoking or reducing excess drinking will be on the wish list for many, but you are unlikely to hear friends and family announce they have decided to quit a gambling habit.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average household in the UK spent £166 last year on having a flutter, a fairly large sum when budgets are squeezed.

That is up 50 pence on the previous year. It is 60 pence more a week than the average household spent on going to the cinema, theatre or museums combined (but still £1.40 a week less than they spent on their pets).

The vast majority of betting is well within the limits of the amount people can afford to lose, and the thrill of the game is sufficient reward. So when does this financial fun become expensive excess?

Could it be you?

About two-thirds of adults will have a bet in the course of the year.

That includes 68% of men and 61% of women, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre's (HSCIC) 2012 Health Survey for England.

If that seems quite high, the explanation is a gambling game that was launched in the UK 20 years ago.

For a stake of £1, the main National Lottery draw gave players a long-shot chance of becoming a millionaire. The price of a ticket has recently risen to £2.

This is by far the most popular form of gambling in the country, ahead of scratch cards and betting on horse racing, according to the HSCIC report.

Excluding those who only played the lottery, 46% of men and 40% of women had gambled in the previous 12 months, the survey suggested.

Online opportunities

Two other developments, in addition to the lottery, have arguably brought gambling further into the mainstream.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Players can place limits on the amount of money that they bet online

The first is the opportunity for operators of casinos and bookmakers to advertise on television and radio since the market was liberalised in 2007.

Research for communications regulator Ofcom found that the total number of gambling advertisement spots shown on television increased from 152,000 in 2006 to 1.39 million in 2012.

The largest number of adverts were about bingo, which research suggests is more popular among women than many other forms of gambling.

The second development is the advance of online gambling. Smartphones and tablet computers have allowed people to gamble at any time of day without having to leave their own homes.

Many of these websites and apps have also developed chat rooms or communities to allow players to interact, with some listing the acronyms for players to use in text-message-style language.

"Younger people are trying out new things. They are comfortable with the technology, but they do not understand the risks," says Dirk Hansen, chief executive of GamCare, which runs a helpline and forums for those who are getting into difficulty.

Addiction

Fewer than one in 100 people in England are "problem gamblers", according to the HSCIC survey.

Problem gambling is defined as "gambling to a degree which compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits". Among the symptoms they can face are insomnia and depression.

GamCare, which receives 35,000 calls and messages a year from gamblers, says the effects impact on the lives of those around problem gamblers, at home and at work.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Casinos have now become a virtual destination on betting websites and apps

That was certainly the case for Justyn Larcombe, 44, a former major in the Army, who seemed to have it all, then lost it.

"I was at the peak of my career [in financial services]. I had a lovely house, I drove a Porsche, we had lovely holidays with our two young children. We had everything we wanted," he says.

His first bet was a £5 wager on the outcome of a rugby match he was watching at home, "which unfortunately I won", he says.

It did not take long for him to become a compulsive gambler, first on sports bets and later on online roulette. He admits he had the personality that meant he hated to lose, so he started to chase his losses, but he also had time to fill.

He found he did not have money for the grocery bills, he was juggling 12 payday loans and had heavy borrowing on credit cards.

That meant a rush on payday to transfer funds before they disappeared on repaying debts.

"I would be standing outside in the freezing cold in my dressing gown at two o'clock in the morning ringing my bank asking them to transfer money into my betting account, rather than payday lenders getting it, or it going out on direct debits," he says.

The only release when he was in that emotional spiral, he says, was another bet.

His lowest point came when his wife left having found his bank statement. He owed five months' rent and was about to be evicted. He sold wedding gifts and the rings she left and blew it almost instantly.

"I just had a black bin liner of clothes left to my name after 43 years of my life. Over the course of three years, I probably lost £750,000, I lost my house, my job, but most of all I had lost the trust my wife had in me," he says.

He turned his life around after feeling humiliated in front of his mother, whom he went to stay with.

Bookmakers' awareness

GamCare says that those at risk of developing a problem are those who have a history of gambling in the family or those who start at a young age.

One in 20 men aged between 16 and 24 are at moderate risk or are already considered to be problem gamblers, according to the HSCIC report.

Image caption Peter Craske says that staff in bookmakers are trained to spot signs of problems

Mr Larcombe believes that the abundance of advertising is one of the reasons that people get drawn into a gambling problem, as well as the access to online websites day and night. However, the industry says advertising is still regulated carefully.

GamCare suggests that anyone who finds themselves in trouble should always talk to somebody.

Each website has a page about gambling responsibly and, when registering, players can set limits on the amount of time and money they spend on the site.

For those going into bookmakers, staff are trained to spot and assist anyone who is showing signs of going over the top, according to Peter Craske, of the Association of British Bookmakers.

He says the industry is also introducing a new code of practice to ensure people are betting responsibly.

"We can do more and we will do more," he says.

With eight million people visiting a betting shop every year, including an increasing number of women, it is clear that everyone needs to keep their head and not bet beyond their means.

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