As a society Ireland is coming to terms with its damaging drink culture. There is more education about the dangers of alcohol and there is an opening up about the problems of gambling addiction, with several high profile sportspeople now talking about how they suffered from their gambling problem.
This is not the case with gambling, and if anything we are normalizing gambling as an activity, just as we did (and to an extent still do) with binge drinking. The saturation coverage on all media of the Cheltenham festival is a perfect example. However, it is clear now that betting has infiltrated many parts of our national discourse with coverage of the recent election often showing the odds on different election outcomes and potential Taoisigh. Football on television has become an opportunity to bet as the game progresses with odds flashed on screen continuously during, for example, Sky Sports coverage. Of course, once you have a mobile phone then it is so easy to put down a stake.
Of course there are many (probably a majority of punters) who can control their gambling, just as there are a majority who can control their drinking. There is no way a prohibition on gambling makes any sense. Indeed there are many strong vested interests who would have a stake (pun intended) in keeping the gambling industry as strong as possible. The Irish government levies a 1% tax on bets (which in the last budget was extended to online betting). The take from this tax is paltry however.
Despite the enormous growth in gambling in Ireland which sees around €4.2bn punted each year, the betting tax is yielding just €27m per year – roughly the same as it did in 1984.
This boils to little more than a question of priorities however, until the issue of gambling addiction is considered. Whatever the scale of gambling addiction in Ireland, there can be no doubt that the gambling industry, and the sport of horse racing that relies on gambling to exist, have negative social external effects. The effects are more significant also because they are so highly concentrated, in that the damage done to individuals and families are catastrophic. An issue raised in the discussion on Newstalk was the lack of investment in gambling addiction support in Ireland. Potential solutions were in short supply, though it is clear that a large part of the solution must be internalizing the external costs of gambling. That means dramatically increasing the betting tax. There can be little justification for VAT rates of 21% and a betting tax rate of 1%. This could be paid by bookmakers (as is currently the case) or by punters. This could be supplemented by a levy on bookmakers’ profits. And instead of ring-fencing the income for investment in an industry that hardly needs such investment, the proceeds could instead by invested in gambling addiction counseling and other mental health supports.