Addict kids are being treated at the first NHS child gambling clinic after losing up to £100,000.
These shocking debts are just the tip of the iceberg as the Sunday People today exposes the crisis of teens across the UK who are hooked on internet football betting and web casinos.
At least 55,000 aged between 11 and 16 children – mainly boys – have a serious gambling problem.
Children a young as eight start their addiction with video games like Fortnite that offer rewards.
A teenager who got hooked at 13 plunged his father’s business into bankruptcy after stealing £60,000 to fuel a six-year online betting spree.
A 12-year-old used his dad’s business card to set up an account and blew £20,000 in one night’s online roulette.
Their horrifying plight will pile yet more pressure on the Government to tackle Britain’s gambling problem.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, which treats kids as young as 13, said: “We are talking heavy, heavy gambling in a population of young people who clearly cannot afford it.”
And campaigning MP Carolyn Harris said: “These are truly shocking figures and we urgently need stronger regulation to prevent children from gambling and stop the devastating consequences this can have.”
The NHS-funded clinic in Earls Court, west London, opened a year ago and the Sunday People has gained an exclusive insight into its work. Many of its patients have stolen and squandered cash from their parents to fuel their habit.
Dr Bowden-Jones said almost a fifth of her patients aged 13 to 25 had debts of between £20,000 to £100,000.
Debts of £5,000 or under made up 39 per cent, then 6 per cent each for debts from £5,000 to £10,000, £10,000 to £15,000 and 15,000 to £20,000.
“The rest had between £20,000 and £100,000 worth of debt and some over £100,000,” said Dr Bowden-Jones. “Only a quarter of these young children and adults had no debt.”
The average daily spend of patients was £194, while the monthly spend was £2,808 and the average number of days spent gambling each month was 13.
She added: “These large sums are a clear indication, now more than ever, we need to address the issue of protecting young people from gambling. The current legislation is not fit for digital purpose and does not protect our children and young people.”
So far 82 children and young people had been referred. More than nine in 10 are male. They include one aged 16, two 17, two 18 and four 19-year-olds.
Dr Bowden-Jones told MPs last week: “A lot of the gambling problems are to do with sport. The normalisation of gambling in sport is leading the majority of our people into early experiences that will forever mark their lives. They’re either online doing sport or they’re in bookmakers doing horses and sport.”
UK betting firms have come under increased scrutiny for their tie-ups with Premier clubs. Experts say the logos on shirts and adverts during TV matches normalise betting.
Kids’ idol Wayne Rooney, England’s record goal scorer, was criticised when he signed with Derby County in a move part-financed by a gambling sponsor.
Youngsters also have easy access to tablets, phones and laptops to set up online accounts despite being underage and having no income.
Becky Harris, the clinic’s service manager and systemic psychotherapist, told the Sunday People: “From sixth form onwards gambling is an acceptable pastime for young boys.”
The Gambling Commission says 55,000 aged between 11 and 16 have a serious gambling problem, spending around £16 each per week.
And therapist Steve Pope, who runs a private clinic in Lancashire, told the Sunday People how “loot boxes” on video games like Fortnite are sparking addictions in children as young as eight.
These boxes offer players a chance at a reward when opened – with some bought for real money and the rewards can be traded.
Steve treated the 12-year-old who used his father’s business card to set-up an account and blow £20,000 in one night on online roulette.
In another harrowing case, a 10-year-old stole his brother’s identity to set up an online betting account to bet on sports accumulators each Saturday. Steve, who warned that self-harm can follow, added: “The whole gambling culture starts with loot boxes.”
Matt Zarb-Cousin, founder of the campaign group Clean Up Gambling, said: “What we’re seeing now is the rotten fruit of more than a decade of lax gambling laws combined with the overpromotion of online betting.”
NHS chief executive Simon Stevens says it is unfair for taxpayers to pick up the huge tab for the expansion of services to help addicts when the financial burden should fall on betting firms.
The Betting and Gaming Council said: “It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to bet or game with any of our members and we have strict age verification and ID measures in place to stop this.
“However, none of these restrictions apply in the illegal online black market, where children can gamble without any checks on their age. This is one of the reasons why we are calling for tougher action on the black market.”
Black market bookies and gambling sites are not registered in the UK and have no presence on our high street.
Their websites, which ignore regulations and do not pay tax, are nearly impossible to shut down because the identity of the operators is unknown. A cross-party group of MPs wants a total ban of gambling adverts as part of a total overhaul of betting laws.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport said: “We are absolutely committed to protecting young people from the risks of gambling-related harm and have been clear that we will review the Gambling Act to ensure it is fit for the digital age.
“We have taken tough new measures over the past 18 months including introducing tighter age and identification checks for online gambling and banning gambling using credit cards.
“We are also expanding national specialist support for young people through the NHS Long Term Plan.”
“It all began with £100 – then I blew £100,000”
Paul Pettigrew’s betting misery began aged 18 with a £1,000 win at a casino that led to him blowing £100,000.
He would sneak to bookies or gamble online while telling his family that he was walking his dog.
The shop worker, 24, took out payday loans and borrowed from loved ones.
Paul has now stopped gambling and he helps addicts by drawing on his experience of hitting rock bottom.
He said: “I had no background of gambling. I had just been released from a professional football environment.
“I went to the casino with £100 and I won £1,000. It was the first time I’d held £1,000 in my life.
“It enabled me to help my family at the time. But in reality it was the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
Paul, from Port Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde, was in gambling’s grip for three years before he told his parents.
He said: “When the losing started I couldn’t stop. I became obsessed. “I started to borrow money from people, from banks, from payday loans.
“I wanted to stop. I would ring the casino and the bookies and I would say that was it. But it was just words.”
Paul, who has not placed a bet in two years, was given antidepressants and counselling but says he ended his addiction on his own.
He runs the online group Gamtalk, where people can learn about and discuss the risks of gambling at instagram.com/gamtalk1