When I was a boy of tender summers, there was a mysterious shop in town with the caption “Turf Accountant.” An accountant, I knew him, was counting money.
So, I concluded, what was going on behind the closed door and the tinted window of the turf accountant was the total of the money the local farmers were making extracting turf from the brown bogs beyond the outskirts of the city. I was old enough to legally have a drink by the time I found out a turf accountant was a bookmaker.
So he went to the Ireland of vices. Labeling a betting shop as a betting shop would have been to publicly acknowledge that gambling was taking place. Better to shroud it in mystery, to preserve appearances, to pretend that there was something austere and sober going on there.
In terms of the dangers of gambling, those days now seem quaint. After all, there wasn’t much beyond gee-gees to place a bet on. The activity took place among a small community of like-minded people, where a wise nod through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke could convey the knowledge that the 3.40 favorite at Chepstow was wearing a bandaged leg.
Today, the game is hidden again but in a completely different universe. The stereotypical heavy hitter is at home in his bed, half-dressed as if unsure whether to tackle the day. He has a phone raised less than eight inches from his face as he bet a bundle that the first goal in South Korea’s second division match between two unpronounceable clubs will come before half-time.
Her heart races after last night’s losses and her breath is shallow. There’s nothing between him and the bet, no cashier behind a counter with a kind word, no fellow desperado putting a hand on his sleeve, no closing time. He is detached from social norms and he wouldn’t recognize a territory accountant if it hit him between the eyes.
The game is getting bad press at the moment and not without reason. Last week, at the launch of a new support service, Gambling Awareness Trust (GAT), it was revealed that the number of people seeking treatment for problem gambling had increased twentyfold in just four years.
Michael Guerin, a counselor working at the Cuan Mhuire center told the that half of clients with addictions are under 35. “We believe that in the future problem gambling will gradually become a bigger issue for young people,” he said.
We live in a media-saturated age of gambling. Each sporting occasion comes with the most sophisticated and expensive advertisements designed to present the game as a fun pastime that will add a thrill of excitement to the occasion. For some, of course, it will, but not for others.
Belgium has recognized the inherent dangers. Last month, the country’s justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, announced a crackdown on advertising, which will no longer be allowed on mass media forums, including TV, radio, social media and social networks. newspapers. The minister said that “gaming is the new tobacco” when it comes to advertising.
Coincidentally, Taoiseach Micheál Martin made a similar comparison last week. He said gambling addiction should be treated the same way smoking has been treated with “the full gamut of advertising regulations”. Fine words of wisdom from the head of government, but there has been very little action to that effect so far.
Even within the industry, it is accepted that things cannot go on as they have. Paddy Power, the spokesman for the bookmaker giant of the same name, acknowledged this in a recent podcast.
“It’s not as fun to be in the industry now as it was back then because of the way the industry is viewed,” he told the podcast. “It would be quite toxic now. This was not the case 10, 15 years ago.
The reality is that the industry has only itself to blame. Despite much bleating, the suspicion remains that very little has been done to tackle problem gambling from within. And now the government intends to tackle the problem by introducing a new gambling regulation bill.
Unfortunately, it may be too little, far too far down the line. The recommendations of the Oireachtas justice committee certainly seem to be moving forward around the issue. For example, it offers measures such as “better verification to be used to verify the age of users placing bets online or in stores”; and “avoid overcrowding play centers in the most deprived neighborhoods” and that “advertising be prohibited before the catchment area”.
It takes place against a backdrop where eight TDs and Government Senators were recently invited and dined at a meeting in Punchestown by the Irish Bookmakers Association. While there’s obviously no quid pro quo involved, the optics are abysmal.
Public health and welfare demands that the government finally get tough on industry, but some lawmakers have no problem being softened by a day at the races. Maybe some of them should make it a point to hang out with people like our friend who can’t get out of bed until the halftime whistle blows at the game in South Korean Second Division.
The proposed big stick is the creation of the office of a gambling regulator. This office will keep an eye on things, and apparently that’s enough to ensure that the industry does the right thing for all of its customers and society as a whole. Some who know the industry well don’t buy it.
Fintan Drury is a former director of Paddy Power, who together with the company’s former chief executive, Stewart Kenny, set up a campaign group, Stop Gambling Harm.
“It doesn’t go far enough,” he said. “From what we know of what is emerging, it is nowhere near substantial enough to address the fundamentals. The idea that the solution is to create a regulator’s office is at best dismissed by the fact that the Uni has had one for many years, but is undertaking a white paper at the end of this month because it recognizes the regulator is not armed with the legislation needed to act.
The approach, it seems, is rather to apply a band-aid. Once again, when the public interest clashes with the vested interest, the government of the day errs on the side of caution rather than acting decisively.
In the years to come, it is highly likely that society as a whole will think back to those times in the same way we perceive today the blind disregard that applied to advertising and sponsorship by cigarette manufacturers until in recent decades.
Now is the time to act decisively rather than wallowing in regret when it is far too late. It shouldn’t take much political courage to do so.