Fears problem gambling could increase

LONDON (Reuters) - Relaxing restrictions on slot machines and casino-building later this year could lead to rising numbers suffering from gambling problems, doctors and church leaders fear.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said earlier this month it was particularly concerned about adolescent gamblers and called for a review of whether slot machine gambling -- popular among teenagers -- should be banned to anyone under 18.

In a report on gambling addiction, the BMA said there were believed to be at least 300,000 people with gambling problems in Britain at present.

The Salvation Army and Methodist Church put the number even higher at 370,000.

In a joint statement, they called for new casinos to be monitored for adverse affects on their local community for up to five years, longer than the three years currently stipulated.

They were particularly concerned about so-called “regional” casinos -- huge, Las Vegas-style supercasinos that will be able to have up to 1,250 unlimited jackpot fruit machines.

“There is no evidence to show what effect a regional casino may have on a UK community, but experience in the United States shows a rise in gambling-related debt, crime, bankruptcy and associated social problems including unemployment and family breakdown,” they said.

A poll conducted for the Daily Telegraph found that 56 percent of those interviewed believed the spread of casinos would increase problem gambling.

The BMA said gambling addiction can lead to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, as well as truanting and stealing among adolescent addicts.

It noted that the liberalisation was coming at the same time as a growth in Internet gambling, with the potential for individuals to gamble anonymously non-stop without anyone checking on their activities.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) says problem gambling is relatively low in Britain and that children will only be able to play very low-jackpot slot machines.

“All gambling operators will have to identify, and if necessary approach, customers who may be affected by problem gambling and provide information about help available,” it said.

On Monday, the DCMS tightened a legal loophole to ban Internet gambling sites outside the European Economic Area and Gibraltar from advertising in Britain unless their home jurisdictions have won permission from the UK first.