Published: 04/04/2002, Volume II2, No. 5799 Page 84

Plans to introduce Las Vegas-style gambling in the UK will lead to the creation of over 1.5 million 'pathological gamblers'with a recognised mental illness, public health experts, gambling addiction charities and the Royal College of Psychiatrists are warning.

The UK Public Health Association and Gamblers Anonymous say culture secretary Tessa Jowell's plans to allow round-the-clock betting and slot machines paying£1m jackpots could lead to a rise in psychiatric illness that threatens the government's pledge to reduce the suicide rate.

The target to cut the rate of suicide by one-fifth by 2010 was set by Ms Jowell herself when she was public health minister.

While around 370,000 people in Britain have a gambling addiction, easy-access gambling could see that figure multiply by more than three, following the pattern of the US and Australia. In the UK that would equate to nearly 1.2 million people.

Dr Emanuel Moran, who wrote the Royal College of Psychiatrists' submission to the consultation on easing gambling laws, said: 'This is a terrible short-term policy - you will see some terrible trouble within the next five to 10 years.

These people will suffer severe psychological, social and financial problems. The government has swallowed the gaming industry's policies hook, line and sinker.'

UK Public Health Association chair Geof Rayner said: 'I do not know how Tessa Jowell can sign up to this. It will clearly have an effect on the suicide statistics and lead to an increase in addiction-related crime. There is no sense of any joined-up approach to addiction policy. It seems as if the attitude to gambling is driven by revenue considerations only.'

A spokesman for Gamblers Anonymous said: 'We expect a dramatic increase in membership as a result of these plans.'

A spokesperson for Ms Jowell's department agreed that 'it is possible that there will be an increase in gambling addiction if there is an increase in gambling'.

In the white paper setting out the proposals for gambling, the government says it will adopt a 'cautious approach to the scale and pace of deregulation.' And it intends to commission more research into gambling addiction.

It adds: 'The most serious cases of problem gambling involve crossing the borderline of mental disorder. The government agrees with the review body's view that NHS mental health services should be prepared to offer assessment and appropriate support and treatment to those with severe problems. Mental health is a government priority, but help for problem gamblers will need to develop within the wide range of demands for these services.'

A Safe Bet for Success www. culture. gov. uk