In a hard-hitting BBC documentary, former England star Paul Merson calls for gambling laws to be tightened to prevent addicts from gambling away their entire lives
Image: BBC / Little Gem Media Ltd)
Gambling addict Paul Merson says betting companies must be stopped from ruining the lives of others, as he admits to being “frightened to death” of relapsing.
In a hard-hitting BBC documentary he calls for the laws to be tightened to prevent addicts from gambling away their entire lives.
Merson admits his problem is a disease as he claims 60% of firms’ profits come from the 5% of gamblers like him.
The former England star says: “Betting companies are exploiting ill people. To do what they do is bordering on evil.
“There are lots of people like me who have a major problem,” he says. “They can’t stop. Betting companies are exploiting ill people. It’s as simple as that. They need to stop.”
BBC / Little Gem Media Ltd. / Chris Collerton)
The soccer pundit, who’s lost more than £7million over 30 years, is not calling for all betting to be banned, but for the companies to have accountability for those who get hooked. In the UK, one person commits suicide every day because of gambling problems.
Just as the betting firms shut down the accounts of those who are winning, he believes they need to limit the accounts of those who are addicted.
“I think they’ve got to take it in their hands. Not keep on leaving it with the compulsive gambler. Don’t throw it onto them. They need to take control. They can’t just use that ‘when the fun stops, stop’ because an addict isn’t going to do that.
“You know when someone’s not having fun – 90 bets a day, 60 bets a day,15 deposits a day. The limits need to be set for these people, because they won’t set a limit themselves. The only time they’re ever going to stop is when everything is gone. They’re not going to stop until their bank account is at zero.”
In the film, an emotional Merson speaks with fellow soccer stars-turned-gamblers Keith Gillespie, Scott Davies and John Hartson about beating his addiction one day at a time.
He admits that if he relapses he fears it will be the end of him. “I can’t live my life like this. I don’t think I’ve got another recovery in me,” he says sadly. “I think this is last chance saloon.
“There’s been days in the last year when I could go back to it. Easily. I loved it. I love the actual gambling, the feeling. I still think about it, it’s still in my head. It frightens me to death.”
These days he has no access to the family finances because last year, in lockdown, he gambled away the deposit he and wife Kate were saving for a house. She now gives him “pocket money” which he resents, but understands.
He gives huge credit to Kate for sticking with him despite what he’s put her and their three young kids through.
“She’s been amazing,” he says. “She understands me. I think it’s down to her mum, who’s dad was a compulsive gambler. My wife would have left me a long time ago – and rightly so.
“Why wouldn’t you? If you’re not around that sort of situation, and I didn’t know I was ill, why would she hang around? She used to think, ‘You must hate me, Paul. You must hate me with a passion. Why did you marry me?’ That was how it felt.
“And then her mum said, ‘Paul’s not well. Grandad was like that’. And I think that was the thing that made her stay, thinking, ‘He’s ill, and one day he’s going to get well.’ And thank God. It paid dividends.”
He’s now gone a year without betting, and accepts that what he has is an illness.
“I’ve surrendered. I know I’m a compulsive gambler. I know I’m ill. And I know I can’t bet. My life becomes so unmanageable.” He says that his feelings of self-loathing stem more from hurting those he loves than from his financial problems.
“I’ve been a millionaire and wanted to kill myself. So it’s not about the money. It’s about time. You lose time with your family. You lose time with the kids. You lose time with your wife. You’re there, but you’re not there. It’s a horrible thing.”
Reformed addict Matt Zarb-Cousin has set up Clean Up Gambling to lobby the government for a full review of the outdated Gambling Act, written in 2005.
He claims that the gambling companies use data to actively encourage those with problems to keep going.
“They know exactly who they are targeting. It’s not in their interests to reduce addiction. They are using data they could be using to prevent harm, to actually make it worse. Your gambling addiction is what their business model is based on.”
The film also explores the relationship between football and betting at a time when almost half the Premier League is sponsored by gambling firms.
“It’s almost impossible to watch a game without thinking about betting,” Merson laments.
Recent research shows that gambling logos appear more than 700 times during a televised game – that’s once every 10 seconds – with a huge impact on the brains of addicts.
At the end of the film, the Betting and Gaming Council cite government figures which suggest the rate of problem gambling is just 0.5%.
In a statement, they add: “We do not recognise many of the claims in the documentary and completely reject the suggestion that our industry targets vulnerable customers.”
Similarly William Hill said it was “disappointed” to hear comments regarding the harm done by betting advertising, citing research which claims that UK gambling advertising was not “a significant cause of harm”.
- Paul Merson: Football, Gambling and Me, BBC1, 9pm on Monday