Two-thirds of patients treated at the UK's first specialist problem gambling clinic have indicated that controversial fixed odds betting terminals encouraged their addiction.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, who set up the NHS National Problem Gambling Clinic in London in 2008, also told Guardian Money society needs to recognise gambling is a fully fledged addiction rather than a mere compulsion. She hopes changing people's perception of the illness will stimulate extra funding.
"It's difficult for people to understand the severity of the illness unless they come into contact with patients. We have 2,000 files of people who have been referred to us. For example, they have lost their home, or their parents' home, through gambling," Bowden-Jones she says. "Many of them have broken marriages and have been separated from their children, lost their jobs or ended up in prison because of the gambling."
The clinic, which has 10 staff including volunteers, survives on a budget of £300,000 a year, but Bowden-Jones hopes to increase funding by launching a charity called Gambling Concern.
"My dream is to have a day hospital and a drop-in centre, capturing people when they're hot off the bookmakers. I can't do that without the extra funding," she says. "The fact that gambling is a hidden addiction works to the detriment of the pathological gambler because sometimes problems have gone so far with the gambler being able to hide the addiction, that by the time people pick up the problems it is an extremely serious addiction with people feeling suicidal. They don't want to live any more because it's a negative reality where they have no job, and no contact with friends because they've tried to borrow money and people have disowned them. They have no spouse, they've lost touch with their parents, they have no home."
She says prisoners have written to her begging for treatment on the day of their release, indicating they will reoffend otherwise.
"Illegal activities among our patients are quite high. These are people who have an addiction and then steal money because they want to fund more gambling. The statistics are quite high – 40%, 50% of gamblers have committed illegal acts," she says. "I really believe one of the things we should be doing, which we've started at the clinic, is to educate the criminal justice system to the fact that this is an illness and it needs to be taken into account when people end up in court."
While gambling addiction is largely viewed as a male problem, roughly 10% of the clinic's patients are female.
Professor Jim Orford, a leading expert on problem gambling at the University of Birmingham, thinks the ease of internet gambling poses a particular threat to women. "It's something you don't have to go out of the house to do, so women who stay at home are certainly at risk."
Orford is also highly critical of fixed odds betting terminals, and backs the High Streets First campaign. "The kind of games you play on them are not your old fruit machine games – these are casino-type games of a kind that used to be confined to casinos. Now, here they are on the high street. By their very nature, I'm not surprised they combine all the features you would expect that make gambling particularly dangerous."
Orford, who is launching a campaign group, Gambling Watch UK, thinks Tony Blair's government lifted the lid on gambling. "As a country we were really quite restrained about gambling. It wasn't advertised, it wasn't encouraged – it was a bit of a dirty word among most people. Then the national lottery came and made a difference. It got gambling advertised in a big way, and all the other gambling firms got together and asked for a level playing field so they could be advertised themselves. I think there has been an enormous rise in gambling and an enormous rise in the accessibility. Attitudes are changing slowly and we really should be worried about it."