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Gambling a public health issue say campaigners as young addicts offered NHS help

By Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor

Gambling should be treated as a public health issue, campaigners have said.

The call came from Stewart Kenny, a founder of bookmaker Paddy Power, and former sports minister Tracey Crouch, who resigned over delays to a crackdown on maximum stakes for fixed-odds betting machines.

They told the BBC programme The Teenage Gamblers that gambling, like alcoholism, smoking or addiction to drugs, "should definitely be a public health issue".

Their comments come as children who are seriously addicted to computer games are to get better access to NHS treatment, including via Skype.

Mr Kenny, who resigned in frustration over the failure of senior management to properly tackle problem gambling, described video games addiction as "a huge problem".

He said: "It is normalising gambling for children and that is dangerous. It is a constant barrage of advertising and it was nearly part of the game.

"It became normal for children to think 'Well, soccer and gambling are the same thing'. They are a lot more likely to get addicted early than an adult would be."

Dedicated professionals are now in place to accept referrals for youngsters aged 13 to 25 who are struggling with addiction to computer games.

The NHS announced in June that children with a gaming addiction could get access to professional treatment via a dedicated gambling clinic.

The new service is part of the Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders.

The World Health Organisation describes "gaming disorder" as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes "precedence over other life interests".

A youngster identified only as Sam, who became addicted to gambling as a teenager, told the BBC programme: "It "totally changed my personality and my thought process, not just in my personality but in my everyday life."

He had also planned to take his own life.

A man, named only as Steve whose son was addicted, said: "It is terrible. We lost three years of our son's life and, more importantly, we lost our way as well."

Symptoms of addiction include lack of control over gaming and placing it as a huge priority at the expense of other things, including relationships, social life and studying.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said: "Health needs are constantly changing, which is why the NHS must never stand still. This new service is a response to an emerging problem, part of the increasing pressures that children and young people are exposed to these days.

"However, the NHS should not be left to pick up the pieces - gambling and internet firms have a responsibility to their users as well as their shareholders and should do their utmost to prevent rather than cash in on obsessive or harmful behaviour."

In June, Mr Stevens said the gambling industry may face a compulsory levy to pay for addiction treatment for patients.

NHS England said many other countries are grappling with the issue of gaming and internet addiction.

In South Korea, the government has introduced a law banning access for children under 16 from online games between midnight and 6am.

Meanwhile, in Japan, players are alerted if they spend more than a certain amount of time each month playing games.

In China, internet giant Tencent has also limited the hours that children can play its most popular games.

Claire Murdoch, NHS national mental health director, said: "Compulsive gaming and social media and internet addiction is a problem that is not going to go away when they play such a key part in modern life.

"The NHS is rising to the challenge - as it always does - with these new, innovative services, but we can't be expected to pick up the pieces, which is why tech giants need to recognise the impact that products which encourage repeated and persistent use have on young people and start taking their responsibilities seriously too."

Up to 14 new adult NHS gambling clinics are being opened across the UK.

The Northern Gambling Service clinic in Leeds is the first outside London and opened last month.

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders and the Royal College of Psychiatrists' spokeswoman on behavioural addictions, said: "Gaming disorder is a mental health condition which can have a hugely debilitating effect on people's lives, both for patients and their families who can be left feeling utterly helpless in the wake of their loved one's addiction.

"Gaming disorder is not a mental illness to be taken lightly: we are talking about instances where someone may spend up to 12 hours a day playing computer games and can end up becoming socially isolated and lose their job as a result. I am delighted to be leading this new clinic."