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Doctor, doctor: What can British GPs do about problem gambling?

A study published in the British Journal of General Practice in March 2017 reported that of 1,058 individuals surveyed in GP waiting rooms in Bristol (UK), 0.9% were problem gamblers and that a further 4.3% reported gambling problems that “were low to medium severity”. This is in line with other British studies carried out over the last decade which have reported problem gambling prevalence rates of between 0.5% and 0.9%.

I have long argued that problem gambling is a health issue and that GPs should routinely screen for gambling problems. Back in 2004, I published an article in the British Medical Journal about why problem gambling is a health issue. I argued that the social and health costs of problem gambling were (and still are) large at both individual and societal levels.

uk-gambling-trade-bodies-unite-to-improve-responsible-gaming

Personal costs can include irritability, extreme moodiness, problems with personal relationships (including divorce), absenteeism from work, neglect of family, and bankruptcy. Adverse health consequences for problem gamblers and their partners include depression, insomnia, intestinal disorders, migraine, and other stress related disorders. In my BMJ article I also noted that analysis of calls to the GamCare national gambling helpline indicated that a small minority of callers reported health-related consequences as a result of their problematic gambling. These included depression, anxiety, stomach problems, and suicidal ideation. Obviously many of these medical problems arise through the stress of financial problems but that doesn’t make it any less of a health issue for those suffering from severe gambling problems.

Research published in the American Journal of Addictions has also shown that health-related problems can occur as a result of withdrawal effects. For instance, one study by Dr. Richard Rosenthal and Dr. Henry Lesieur found that at least 65% of pathological gamblers reported at least one physical side effect during withdrawal, including insomnia, headaches, loss of appetite, physical weakness, heart racing, muscle aches, breathing difficulty, and chills.

Based on these findings, problem gambling is very much a health issue that needs to be taken seriously by all in the medical profession. GPs routinely ask patients about smoking cigarettes and drinking, but gambling is something that is not generally discussed. Problem gambling may be perceived as a grey area in the field of health, and it is therefore very easy for those in the medical profession not to have the issue on their wellbeing radar. If the main aim of GPs is to ensure the health of their patients, then an awareness of gambling and the issues surrounding it should be an important part of basic knowledge and should be taught in the curriculum while prospective doctors are at medical school. One of the reasons that GPs don’t routinely screen for problem gambling is because they are not taught about it during their medical training and therefore do not even think about screening for it in the first place. As I recommended in a report commissioned by the British Medical Association, the need for education and training in the diagnosis, appropriate referral and effective treatment of gambling problems must be addressed within GP training. More specifically, GPs should be aware of the types of gambling and problem gambling, demographic and cultural differences, and the problems and common co-morbidities associated with problem gambling. GPs should also understand the importance of screening patients perceived to be at increased risk of gambling addiction, and should be aware of the referral and support services available locally.

I also recommended that treatment for problem gambling should be provided under the NHS (either as standalone services or alongside drug and alcohol addiction services) and funded by gambling-derived profit revenue.

Back in 2011, Dr. Jane Rigbye and myself published a study using Freedom of Information requests to ask NHS trusts if they had ever treated pathological gamblers. Only 3% of the trusts had ever treated a problem gambler and only one trust said they offered dedicated help and support. I’m sure if we repeated the study today, little will have changed.

It is evident that problem gambling is not, as yet, on the public health agenda in the UK. NHS services – including GP surgeries – need to be encouraged to see gambling problems as a primary reason for referral and a valid treatment option. Information about gambling addiction services, in particular services in the local area, should be readily available to gamblers and GP surgeries are a good outlet to advertise such services. Although some gambling services (such as GamCare, the gambling charity I co-founded) provide information to problem gamblers about local services, such information is provided to problem gamblers who have already been proactive in seeking gambling help and/or information. Given that very few GPs could probably treat a problem gambler, what they must have is the knowledge of who they can refer their patients to.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Calado, F. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Problem gambling worldwide: An update of empirical research (2000-2015). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 592–613.

Cowlishaw, S., Gale, L., Gregory, A., McCambridge, J., & Kessler, D. (2017). Gambling problems among patients in primary care: a cross-sectional study of general practices. British Journal of General Practice, doi: bjgp17X689905

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Gambling – An emerging area of concern for health psychologists. Journal of Health Psychology, 6, 477-479.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Betting your life on it: Problem gambling has clear health related consequences. British Medical Journal, 329, 1055-1056.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling Addiction and its Treatment Within the NHS. London: British Medical Association (ISBN 1-905545-11-8).

Griffiths, M.D. & Smeaton, M. (2002). Withdrawal in pathological gamblers: A small qualitative study. Social Psychology Review, 4, 4-13.

Rigbye, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Problem gambling treatment within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 276-281.

Rosenthal, R., & Lesieur, H. (1992). Self-reported withdrawal symptoms and pathological gambling. American Journal of the Addictions, 1, 150–154.

Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011).  British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.

Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M.D., Constantine, R. & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey. London: The Stationery Office.

The weighting game: Gambling with the nation’s health (revisited)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog on why problem gambling should be considered a health issue. Earlier this week, I came across an interesting study carried out by jackpot.co.uk who surveyed 2,131 online gamblers (58% males and 42% female) about their health. After the self-reported data had been collected, the gamblers were classed into one of nine categories based on the casino game type that the gambler played most often (i.e., slot machines, video poker, blackjack, roulette, dice/craps, baccarat, poker, pai gow, and ‘other’). The data were then tabulated so that all the health variables (including obesity) corresponded to the gambler’s preferred casino game.

I was interested in the findings not only because I am a Professor of Gambling Studies, but also because I was a member of the Department of Health’s Expert Working Group on Sedentary Behaviour, Screen Time and Obesity’ (a reference to our final report to the British government can be found in the ‘Further Reading’ section below). The study took an objective measurement of physical condition by asking each gambler their height (centimetres) and their weight (kilograms) to calculate each person’s Body Mass Index (BMI) by dividing the gamblers’ weight by height (metres) and dividing by height again (for example, someone who weighs 80kg and is 180cm tall, the BMI is 24.1 as this is 80/1.80)/1.80). The survey then asked s few general health and lifestyle questions (similar to ones that we have used in the last few British Gambling Prevalence Surveys:

  • Do you normally drink more than the recommended limit for weekly alcohol consumption (21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women)? (Yes/No)
  • Do you smoke regularly? (Yes/No)
  • Do you normally engage in at least 30 minutes of physical activity, 5 times per week? (Yes/No)

Overall, the survey found that British casino gamblers as a group were no less healthy than the rest of the British population, with an average Body Mass index (BMI) of 27 (which is the same as the UK national average). However, the survey also reported that the average BMIs, health, and lifestyle choices (such as smoking cigarettes, engaging in exercise, and drinking alcohol varied considerably depending on the casino games that the respondents played. Here are some of the main findings:

  • Slots players were the least healthy. They took less exercise and had an average BMI of 31, pushing them into the category of obese (which is linked to increased chance of developing illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and reduced life expectancy)
  • Roulette, blackjack, video poker and craps/dice players were not far behind slots players, each having BMI levels higher than the national average.
  • Those that played poker, baccarat and Pai Gow had an average BMI of 25 or under (well within the normal range recommended by the World Health Organisation.
  • Whilst drinking levels might be reasonably high among poker players, they were very exercise conscious, with 58% engaging in physical activity for at least 30 minutes, five times a week. For slots players the figure was 27% meeting this government recommended target.
  • Overall slots players drink the most, with 24.1% drinking over the recommended weekly limit. Poker players are not far behind on 23%. Female slots players were the biggest drinking subgroup, closely followed by male poker players.
  • Slots players also smoked more, with 24% being regular smokers (compared to the UK national average of 20%). Blackjack and roulette players smoked slightly more than average, on 21% and 22% respectively, while poker players smoked slightly less than average, on 19.5%.

None of these results is overly surprising as there are many studies (including my own) showing comorbidity between gambling and other potentially addictive behaviours. However, very few academic studies have ever looked at these health variables by game type. Although this was not an academic study, the results will likely be of interest to those in the gambling studies field.

The survey also examined the most common platform on which the gamblers played casino games. The most common was the desktop computer (65%), followed by mobiles and tablets (20%) and land-based casinos (14%). This is not surprising given the survey was completed by online gamblers. Interestingly, desktop use was linked to higher levels of obesity, drinking and smoking. This is something that I would expect given that online gambling is the most sedentary of these activities.

There are (of course) some limitations with the data collected particularly as it comprised a self-selected sample of online gamblers that played via jackpot.co.uk websites. We have no idea as to whether the sample is representative of all online gamblers but as I noted above, it is no surprise that online gamblers preferred playing casino games online compared to offline (i.e., land-based casinos). The data were also self-report and are therefore open to any number of individual biases including recall biases and social desirability biases. Also, we have no geographical breakdown of the sample as the internet (by definition) is global. However, the sample size is good in comparison to many published studies on gambling and the sample included individuals that were actually gamblers (as opposed to university undergraduates or members of the general public). According to Sam Marsden (editor of jackpot.co.uk and author of the report):

“There’s an undeniable link connecting passive games like slots and video poker to unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles. On the other hand, games that require concentration, strategy and some physical stamina like poker and blackjack seem to fare much better in the health stakes. It seems it’s less a case of ‘you are what you eat’ and more ‘you are what you play’.”  

Although such a conclusion could be argued to be PR spin on the findings, the results suggest that more rigorous studies could be carried out in the area including secondary analyses of the robust datasets that already exist including the British Gambling Prevalence Surveys, the English Health Surveys, and the Scottish health Surveys.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biddle, S., Cavill, N., Ekelund, U., Gorely, T., Griffiths, M.D., Jago, R., et al. (2010). Sedentary Behaviour and Obesity: Review of the Current Scientific Evidence. London: Department of Health/Department For Children, Schools and Families (126pp).

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Gambling – An emerging area of concern for health psychologists. Journal of Health Psychology, 6, 477-479.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Betting your life on it: Problem gambling has clear health related consequences. British Medical Journal, 329, 1055-1056.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling Addiction and its Treatment Within the NHS. London: British Medical Association (ISBN 1-905545-11-8).

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2010). Gambling, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and health: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. Addiction Research and Theory, 18, 208-223.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2011). Internet gambling, health. Smoking and alcohol use: Findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 1-11.

Marsden, S. (2014). Booze, bets, and BMI. Jackpot.co.uk, October 6. Located at: http://www.jackpot.co.uk/online-casino-articles/booze-bets-bmi

Rigbye, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Problem gambling treatment within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 276-281.

Wardle, H., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J., Moody, A. & Volberg, R. (2012). Gambling in Britain: A time of change? Health implications from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 273-277.

Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.

Wardle, H., Seabury, C., Ahmed, H., Payne, C., Byron, C., Corbett, J. & Sutton, R. (2014). Gambling behaviour in England and Scotland: Findings from the Health Survey for England 2012 and Scottish Health Survey 2012. London: NatCen.

Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M. D., Constantine, R., & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: National Centre for Social Research.

The national wealth service: Problem gambling is a health issue

Over the last decade, the United Kingdom has undergone major changes of gambling legislation (most notably, the 2005 Gambling Act that came into force on September 1, 2007). The Gambling Act has provided the British public with increased opportunities and access to gambling like they have never seen before. Gambling legislation was revolutionized and many of the tight restrictions on gambling dating back to the 1968 Gaming Act were relaxed (particularly in relation to the advertising of gambling). The deregulation of gambling has also been coupled with the many new media in which people can gamble (internet gambling, mobile phone gambling, interactive television gambling, gambling via social networking sites). Given the expected explosion in gambling opportunities, is this something that the health and medical professions should be concerned about?

Gambling has not been traditionally viewed as a public health matter although research into the health, social and economic impacts of gambling has grown considerably since the 1990s. In August 1995, the British Medical Journal published an editorial called ‘Gambling with the nation’s health?’ which argued that gambling was a health issue because it widened the inequalities of income and that there was an association between inequality of income in industrialized countries and lower life expectancy. However, there are many other more specific reasons why gambling should be viewed as an issue for the medical profession.

According to the last British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) published in 2011, just under 1% of the British population have a severe gambling problem although the rate is approximately twice as high in adolescents, particularly as a result of problematic slot machine gambling. Disordered gambling is characterized by unrealistic optimism on the gambler’s part. All bets are made in an effort to recoup their losses. The result is that instead of “cutting their losses”, gamblers get deeper into debt pre-occupying themselves with gambling, determined that a big win will repay their loans and solve all their problems.

It is clear that the social and health costs of problem gambling can be large on both an individual and societal level. Personal costs can include irritability, extreme moodiness, problems with personal relationships (including divorce), absenteeism from work, family neglect, and bankruptcy. I have also reported in a number of my papers (including a 2007 report I wrote for the British Medical Association) that there can also be adverse health consequences for both the gambler and their partner including depression, insomnia, intestinal disorders, migraines, and other stress-related disorders. In the UK, preliminary analysis of the calls to the national gambling helpline also indicated that a significant minority of the callers reported health-related consequences as a result of their problem gambling. These include depression, anxiety, stomach problems, other stress-related disorders and suicidal ideation.

There are also other issues relating to problem gambling that may have medical consequences. One US study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine by Dr. Robert Muellman and his colleagues found that intimate partner violence (IPV) was predicted by pathological gambling in the perpetrator. In a sample of 286 women admitted to the emergency department at a University Hospital in Nebraska, findings revealed that a woman whose partner was a problem gambler was 10.5 times more likely to be a victim of IPV than partners of a non-problem gambler.

Health-related problems due to problem gambling can also result from withdrawal effects. In a study published in the American Journal of the Addictions, Dr. Richard Rosenthal and Dr. Henry Lesieur found that at least 65% of pathological gamblers reported at least one physical side-effect during withdrawal including insomnia, headaches, upset stomach, loss of appetite, physical weakness, heart racing, muscle aches, breathing difficulty and/or chills. Their results were also compared to the withdrawal effects from a substance-dependent control group. They concluded that pathological gamblers experienced more physical withdrawal effects when attempting to stop than the substance-dependent group. I also found similar things in a small study that I published in the Social Psychological Review (with Michael Smeaton).

Pathological gambling is very much the ‘hidden’ addiction. Unlike (say) alcoholism, there is no slurred speech and no stumbling into work. Furthermore, overt signs of problems often don’t occur until late in the pathological gambler’s career. If problem gambling is an addiction that can destroy families and have medical consequences, it becomes clear that medical professionals should be aware of the effects of gambling in just the same way that they are with other potentially addictive activities like drinking (alcohol) and smoking (nicotine).

However, gambling addiction is an activity that is not (at present) being treated via the British National Health Service (NHS). This was shown in a paper that I published with Dr. Jane Rigbye in a paper we published in a 2011 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. We sent a total of 327 letters were sent to all Primary Care Trusts, Foundation Trusts and Mental Health Trusts in the UK requesting information about problem gambling service provision and past year treatment of gambling problems within their Trust under the Freedom of Information Act. Our findings showed that 97% of the NHS Trusts did not provide any service (specialist or otherwise) for treating those with gambling problems (i.e., only nine Trusts provided evidence of how they deal with problem gambling). Only one Trust offered dedicated specialist help for problem gambling. Our study showed there was some evidence that problem gamblers may get treatment via the NHS if that person has other co-morbid disorders as the primary referral problem.

Problem gambling is very much a health issue that needs to be taken seriously by all within the health and medical professions. General practitioners routinely ask patients about smoking and drinking but gambling is something that is not generally discussed. Problem gambling may be perceived as a somewhat ‘grey area’ in the field of health and it is therefore very easy to deny that those in the medical profession should be playing a role. If the main aim of practitioners is to ensure the health of their patients, then it is quite clear that an awareness of gambling and the issues surrounding it should be an important part of basic knowledge.

As briefly outlined above, opportunities to gamble and access to gambling have increased because of deregulation and technology. What has been demonstrated from research evidence in other countries is that – in general – where accessibility of gambling is increased there is an increase not only in the number of regular gamblers but also an increase in the number of problem gamblers – although this may not be proportional. This obviously means that not everyone is susceptible to developing gambling addictions but it does mean that at a societal (rather than individual) level, in general, the more gambling opportunities, the more problems. Other countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand have seen increases in problem gambling as a result of gambling liberalization. In the UK, the last BGPS showed that problem gambling in Great Britain had increased by 50% compared to the previous BGPS published in 2007. (However, the latest data from the combined Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey in 2014 reported that problem gambling had fallen to about 0.5%).

Gambling is without doubt a health and issue and there is an urgent need to enhance awareness within the medical and health professions about gambling-related problems and to develop effective strategies to prevent and treat problem gambling. The rapid expansion of gambling represents a significant public health concern and health/medical practitioners also need to research into the impact of gambling on vulnerable, at-risk, and special populations. It is inevitable that a small minority of people will become casualties of gambling in the UK, and therefore help should be provided for the problem gamblers. Since gambling is here to stay and is effectively state-sponsored, the Government should consider giving priority funding (out of taxes raised from gambling revenue) to organizations and practitioners who provide advice, counselling and treatment for people with severe gambling problems.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Betting your life on it: Problem gambling has clear health related consequences. British Medical Journal, 329, 1055-1056.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling Addiction and its Treatment Within the NHS. London: British Medical Association.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Adolescent gambling. In B. Bradford Brown & Mitch Prinstein (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Volume 3) (pp.11-20). San Diego: Academic Press.

Griffiths, M.D., Scarfe, A. & Bellringer, P. (1999). The UK National telephone Helpline – Results on the first year of operation. Journal of Gambling Studies, 15, 83-90.

McKee, M. & Sassi, F. (1995). Gambling with the nation’s health. British Medical Journal, 311, 521-522.

Muelleman, R. L., DenOtter, T., Wadman, M. C., Tran, T. P., & Anderson, J. (2002). Problem gambling in the partner of the emergency department patient as a risk factor for intimate partner violence. Journal of Emergency Medicine, 23, 307-312.

Rigbye, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Problem gambling treatment within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 276-281.

Rosenthal, R. & Lesieur, H (1992). Self-reported withdrawal symptoms and pathological gambling. American Journal of the Addictions, 1, 150-154.

Setness, P.A. (1997). Pathological gambling: When do social issues become medical issues? Postgraduate Medicine, 102, 13-18.

Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.

Wardle, H., Seabury, C., Ahmed, H., Payne, C., Byron, C., Corbett, J. & Sutton, R. (2014). Gambling behaviour in England and Scotland: Findings from the Health Survey for England 2012 and Scottish Health Survey 2012. London: NatCen.