A senior figure in the National Health Service has warned of the risk of an increase in problem gambling associated with the return of Premier League football this week.

Claire Murdoch, the Director of mental health at NHS England has warned betting operators not to take advantage of the return of televised football with promotional campaigns that could cause more problem gambling, at a time when health service resources are stretched due to the global pandemic.

Murdoch, who has headed up the establishment of 14 specialist clinics across the country to treat those suffering from gambling addiction, said that the NHS service could struggle to cope with what she described as the ‘avoidable harm’ produced by gambling advertising. And she said that the aggressive marketing of gambling companies was causing widespread problems:

“The NHS is stepping up to the plate to offer specialist treatment, but with my colleagues having spent this year focused on protecting people from a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, the last thing NHS staff and patients need is for avoidable harm to be caused by reckless advertising and behaviour from the gambling industry as normal life begins to resume.”

Murdoch emphasised the risks of betting companies restarting their aggressive advertising campaigns to make up for the losses they have incurred with the suspension of live sport in the pandemic.

The industry itself, faced with an imminent government review of the 2005 Gambling Act, has brought forward a number of measures, many focused on the changed betting landscape shaped by the coronavirus lockdown. And in his response to Murdoch’s comments, the Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, Michael Dugher focused on the range of measures that the industry has introduced, including the ban on advertising during live sports television broadcasting. He also stated that at least a fifth of TV and radio advertising by gambling operators will be dedicated to promoting safer gambling, while the sector was setting aside £100 million for research and treatment.

But Murdoch says that she is concerned that the whistle-to-whistle television advertising ban is not matched by a similar ban on online promotions, particularly on mobile phone apps, which are used by many gamblers to bet in-play. Back in January, she wrote to a number of major gambling companies including William Hill and Bet365 criticising them over their marketing practices and underlining that there was a clear and worrying connection between gambling and mental illness.

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