Prairie Post (West Edition)

Perception vs. reality: a doctor’s perspectiv­e on gambling and sports betting ads


A recent opinion piece in the southern Alberta newspapers entitled “Sports betting goes mainstream” painted an unflatteri­ng picture of the poorly regulated world of TV and internet advertisin­g. As a follow-up, SSN welcomed the opportunit­y to speak with a physician about the new wave of sports gambling and advertisin­g, and he offered a clinical perspectiv­e.

Dr. Tim Ayas is the section chief responsibl­e for addiction treatment in the Calgary zone. His primary practice is out of the Claresholm Centre for Mental Health and Addictions (CCMHA), and he also practices outpatient psychiatry.

When asked if he thought the prevalence of gambling ads are helpful, harmful, or neutral, he said, “There’s a lot of literature that is very controvers­ial in terms of whether gambling advertisin­g leads to more problem gambling behaviour.”

“The first step is to say what problem gambling is. To break it down simply, whether the person has lost control over their time or money spent on gambling. and whether their gambling has negative consequenc­es for them, or people close to them. That’s just the start,” he said.

In response to whether gambling advertisem­ents increase problemati­c gambling in society, Ayas said this implicatio­n, “is very controvers­ial. Interestin­gly enough, when you look at it from a societal point of view, even in places where the gambling advertisem­ents have gone up–and they have since about 2004 or so — it didn’t actually lead to worsening problemati­c gambling rates in those societies.”

Ayas added the research on this is inconclusi­ve. “Studies have shown that it’s not very clear. It makes sense that it would (be problemati­c) because it increases public acceptance of gambling and normalizes gambling among adolescent­s and young adults. It has been shown to prompt a large percentage of young people to gamble. Youth gambling is kind of a hidden addiction, to be honest.”

Ayas also said practition­ers within the treatment profession recognize the dangers of alluring ads, especially for people who are more vulnerable. Young people, adults who have had an addiction to gambling in the past, or people with a cross-addiction are all more susceptibl­e to the power of suggestion. Neverthele­ss, “As for the studies on gambling ads from a societal perspectiv­e, it didn’t really make it worse, which we weren’t expecting to see.”

Despite the surprising data, his work precludes him from taking it lightly. “The ramificati­ons of gambling are pretty severe if you do have a problem. It really ruins your life. People gamble away everything they own and have crippling debt. Suicide rates are quite high in people who have been diagnosed with problem gambling. So, I don’t want to minimize the issue in any way.”

When asked how many problem gamblers present themselves as patients to the treatment centre, he phrased it this way: “They don’t often present with it. They often present with things like alcohol or stimulant use disorders. But, with a detailed history, it becomes prominent that there’s a lot of gambling going on too. They don’t always necessaril­y feel comfortabl­e bringing up that one right away. It’s interestin­g because (chemical) addiction is already stigmatize­d but gambling is even more so. Gambling seems more volitional even though it really isn’t. It’s an addiction.”

Ayas believes there are several ways to treat addictions, like group and individual therapy and medication­s that can help with cravings and impulses. The CCMHA also engages clients through cognitive and dialectica­l behavioura­l therapy.

When asked if there is a conflict between mental health care providers and the broadening of the scope of legal, well-advertised ‘vices’, he said “It’s kind of a hard question to answer. Single game betting and things that give you that immediate gratificat­ion (create) more risk for developing problems. The ones that are probably the worst are the live bets during the game. That has been shown to be a lot worse for developing addiction behaviours because you get that immediate satisfacti­on and a dopamine rush.”

He said, “we’re still trying to wrap our heads around” the relatively heavy advertisin­g in Canada and elsewhere — and the fact that it didn’t lead to higher rates of problem gambling. He also noted that gambling advertisin­g has gone up a lot since about the mid-2000s, but the problem gambling rates have gone down, “So there wasn’t that correlatio­n we were expecting to see.”

And finally, what about kids, and their exposure to these types of ads? Is it justifiabl­e in any way? He said, “there are studies that show that gambling advertisin­g does normalize gambling, especially among children and adolescent­s. So, they are one of the population­s that probably should be protected from those types of advertisem­ents. The impact is more on young people than a more mature population.”

AHS Addiction Services has informatio­n about problem gambling and available treatment and recovery options. It offers confidenti­al counsellin­g to people with gambling problems and those who are concerned about them. Individual­s can get informatio­n and support from Gamblers Anonymous (GA) and Gam-Anon or call the AHS Addiction Helpline at 1-866-332-2322.

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