Ever since someone came for treatment for compulsive gambling at the addiction rehab clinic where I work, I have wanted to find out more about this type of addiction. But therapists are a priestly lot when it comes to talking about their patients and the rules about confidentiality are so strict that its hard to find out about our patients.
So I turned to the internet and found a series of rather shocking facts. An NHS survey in 2009 found that since restrictions on gambling were lifted, over 1.3 million Brits have a gambling problem. But governments love gambling because it brings in dollops of dough without the controversies of taxation - some call it the 'voluntary tax' - and the Exchequer rakes in almost £100 billion a year from gambling taxes.
In the USA there are said to be 10 million gambling addicts and if you think that each one of these has a negative effect on friends and family, I wonder how many Americans are affected by gambling? Is it really true that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"?
Out of all the addictions, gambling is the one that results in the most suicides. "It's a disease that kills" says Dr Timothy Fong, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, "25% of gamblers who have entered treatment have tried to kill themselves". Compare that figure with drug addicts and alcoholics - of whom about 10 to 15% attempt suicide - and it puts into context how dangerous gambling can be.
What particularly shocked me was the tactics that casinos use to entice people who show signs of being addicted to gambling. Casinos give out smart cards and with these they track players, evaluate their worth, and send gifts in the post that will tempt them back - plane tickets, free hotel rooms, free chips, etc. They ply their clients with free drinks, remove all clocks and windows from the casino so they lose track of time and make the design of the place so complex that you can't leave without passing endless rows of slot machines ('the crack cocaine of gambling'). You will never see an 'Exit' sign in a casino.
The American casinos have perfected a diabolically clever system that is designed to get vulnerable people - people who may be depressed or compulsive or show signs of becoming addicted to the games - coming back again and again, bankrupting themselves and their families in the process. One writer said "imagine you were in recovery from alcoholism and suddenly a case of Johnny Walker lands on your doorstep."
"Casinos are a psychological minefield." writes the author of a fascinating article on the tactics that casinos use. "Their architectural design, as well as everything in it, has a methodical function devised to keep you, the player, inside spending your money." All these tactics are designed to make the players "feel comfortable, wanted, and most of all, optimistic."
Prior to Tony Blair's government, gambling was restricted in the UK. The last Labour government allowed the building of casinos with jackpots of £4,000, and bookies and betting websites were allowed to advertise on the TV for the first time. British casino operators were not slow in learning the marketing tactics the Americans had perfected.
"These figures illustrate how gambling is fast becoming an endemic problem across different age groups" said Anne Milton in 2009, when she was the Conservative Party's health spokesperson. But since taking power the Conservatives' moral objections to gambling have been quietly forgotten.