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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 April, 2004, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Gambling shake-up 'risks health'
Roulette wheel
Campaigners fear more people could become addicted to gambling
Plans to ease the regulation of gambling will mean more mental health problems, one of the UK's leading health officials has warned.

Public Health Association chairman Geoff Rayner said the number of addicts could double if the plans went ahead.

It comes after MPs and Lords warned the plans to allow Las Vegas-style casinos could increase problem gambling.

But Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has insisted the shake-up will be done in a "socially responsible manner".

The plans to liberalise the old gambling laws are currently before parliament.

But speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Rayner said: "There are major mental health problems associated with the expansion of gambling."

It flies in the face of the other anti-poverty, pro-public health policies of this government
Geoff Rayner
Public Health Association

He highlighted research by The Henley Centre, a strategic marketing consultancy, which estimated the number of gamblers could double to 750,000 people.

"There are major poverty problems because if you are putting a proportion of your very meagre income into gambling, you are not actually providing other things like fresh fruit and vegetables to your children.

"I do think it flies in the face of the other anti-poverty, pro-public health policies of this government," he added.

Mr Rayner wants limits on the size of casinos, clearer health messages about the potential risks, more money to help gamblers in trouble and Government targets on reducing the number of problem gamblers.

The Salvation Army, which has campaigned against liberalisation of gambling laws, welcomed Mr Rayner's remarks.

Spokesman Jonathan Lomax said: "All reputable academics and an influential committee of MPs and Lords agree that problem gambling is likely to rise as a result of the extra gambling opportunities available in the Gambling Bill.

"Pressure must surely be mounting on Ms Jowell to explain why she is one of the only people in the UK who thinks that the numbers of problem gamblers will not rise after gambling liberalisation."

What will characterise the modernisation is a very clear obligation on all gambling businesses to act in a socially responsible way
Tessa Jowell

But the minister for gambling, Lord McIntosh, told the BBC: "The truth of the matter is that casino gambling, is at most, 3% of the population of this country.

"Much more of this 150-page Bill is actually increasing the controls on gambling.

"It is creating a gambling commission with greater powers to keep out crime, to ensure fair play and to protect against problem gambling - to protect vulnerable adults and children."

Protecting children

The report from the cross-party committee said the government's proposals should be toned down, saying other countries had seen problem gambling increase as a result of super-casinos.

It called for large "resort" casinos only to be built in areas of high unemployment.

It also recommended a strict limit on the number of big prize slot machines allowed on the casino floor.

Ms Jowell said: "What will characterise the modernisation of what are widely recognised as outdated gambling laws is not a free-for-all, as has been misleadingly reported, but a very clear obligation on all gambling businesses to act in a socially responsible way."

Ms Jowell said the government would respond to a 300-page report from the joint committee on the draft Gambling Bill in the next two months.

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