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Battle against gambling harms takes to the streets amid cost of living crisis

Betknowmore's Anna Niemczewska talks about the charity's approach to education

By John Cobb

Promoting safer gambling is all well and good but the job of going into the community, out on the streets and raising awareness is an important, but not easy task.

At the forefront of that mission is Betknowmore, the charity established nine years ago by former gambling addict Frankie Graham and which is driven by the lived experiences of its founder and others who have shared that dependency.

“We put boots on the ground,” says Anna Niemczewska, Betknowmore’s director of operations. “We visit community centres, food banks, university freshers’ fairs, anywhere close to a betting shop – and where in a city isn’t close to a betting shop? – places where those who are most vulnerable might already be seeking help.

“There’s still a huge number of people unaware of the potential risks of gambling and one of our roles is to raise their awareness before it becomes a serious issue. Prevention is key.

“When we go out into the community one of the things you hear is: ‘If I knew this before my gambling became a problem then my life would have been different.’ You hear that a lot.”

The Betknowmore team is facing increasing demands for its services, especially as the cost of living crisis bites and people may be tempted to turn to gambling in the hope of making money in order to make ends meet.

“It is among the reasons we now work closely with the north London borough of Islington in anticipation of the problems ahead this winter,” Niemczewska says.

“It is particularly the case that women, who might not have bet previously, turn to gambling to try to pay bills. Recent research carried out for GambleAware said one in four women aged between 18 and 49 expects to gamble more in the coming months because of the cost of living crisis.

“We are developing a support service called New Beginnings, which is designed and run by women with lived experience and which caters for the different situation of women.

“But it’s not just when people are desperate that they can suffer from gambling harms. Those who may be perceived as less financially vulnerable in high-income jobs can be affected too. For example, we are targeting the finance and construction sectors as ones we want to come to first with our Worksafe training programme we run with GamCare, because we have identified specific gambling harm risk to those sectors.

“With construction, it’s because the work is often contract-based and paid inconsistently, sometimes in cash and, historically, a lot of the socialising has been around going to the betting shop or watching sport.

“What also can make people more vulnerable to gambling harm is when there’s an unexpected change in their circumstances, not just having less money but also more; for example, receiving money through a large inheritance. It’s easier to risk unearned money so then there’s a cycle in which if you’ve lost that money you try to make it back.

“It’s similar with young people at this time of year who suddenly have a large student loan sitting in their bank account so this is why we go out to freshers’ fair to make them aware.

“Financial education around gambling for young people is hugely important. If you’re out late in London, casinos tend to be among the few places open. When the pub closes a casino can be a very welcoming environment.”

Education and awareness raising to prevent people experiencing gambling harm is at the forefront of Betknowmore’s work.

“Those who contact the National Gambling Helpline or our own services are in crisis already and what we want to do is reach out to people before they reach that point,” Niemczewska says. “It’s difficult, because when you’re in crisis you know you’re in crisis and you reach out for help, but when you’re still on the path to that crisis how receptive are you to early messaging?

“This is why so many in the sector are talking about gambling harms being a public health issue because whole-population messaging is really important. It means people are better equipped to monitor their behaviours and to have the question of gambling addiction in their head. It also means when they’re in crisis they have a better understanding of where to go for help.

“Betknowmore consider that the public health approach means working with all stakeholders, such as working with industry on training and harm minimisation – using our voices of lived experience to help organisations across the sector understand the issues faced. It’s important to understand there’s a difference between gambling and gambling harms, which is why we use that term. It is the harms that is the public health issue.

“There is a distorted way of thinking when you’re amid addictive behaviour. Your ability to make decisions is disrupted and risk-taking spills into other areas of your life – work, home, relationships – changing the perception of what is a risk and what isn’t.

“It’s important for people to know, before they start gambling, that this can happen to them or those close to them. We know many people can gamble safely as a leisure activity but educating about potential harms needs to be part of the public health messaging that goes out to the general population.”