The ongoing Euro football tournament is a punter’s magnet, especially for the 70 per cent of Thais who reportedly gamble regularly. But besides the billions of baht involved, extensive betting surely takes a toll on health. In 2010, during the last World Cup, there were calls for Thai society to help the gambling addicts.
Like moderate use of alcohol, moderate gambling as an occasional leisure activity is considered acceptable social behaviour in most cultures and poses no health concern. Some people, however, develop an uncontrollable obsession – compulsive gambling – and, just like alcohol or drug addiction, it can have destructive personal, familial and professional consequences.
Gambling becomes pathological when you’re unable to stop despite suffering the consequences. Quitting is very difficult and, despite frequent attempts, successful withdrawal is rarely achieved without the help of a competent institution.
Gambling addiction typically begins in the late teens and develops gradually over time. It might follow a period of enjoyable “social gambling” or could rapidly evolve into a full-blown addiction in relation to major stressful life events. You become addicted by the game as a way to escape personal problems or depression.
There is no specific addiction profile, but this dependence problem usually affects younger males with behavioural or substance-abuse disorders or a family history of gambling addiction. The gambling provides intense euphoria, comparable to that of illicit psychoactive drugs. In the meantime it also induces persistent changes in some brain chemicals that could be quite similar to those released by addictive substances such as alcohol and opium-derived compounds. The cerebral chemistry alteration partly explains the relapses, even after long-term cessation.
Alcoholics and drug addicts must progressively increase the amount of the substance to get the same pleasure effect, a phenomenon called “tolerance”. Similarly, compulsive gamblers develop a tolerance for the thrill and must increase the amount or the risk of their bets.
Addicts often report that the betting excitement they get is the main reason for their habit forming, not the money involved in the wager. They consider money more a commodity to be used because, whatever the winning bet, they’ll try for a higher one, and so one. Ultimately they can only lose.
Compulsive gamblers often do not recognise their addiction. In such cases, the emotional and financial consequences of the addiction should compel relatives or other people to intervene and seek medical assistance.
Addiction treatments for gamblers include specialised psychotherapy, medication and self-help groups. As with other addiction issues, the addict could easily return to gambling if he associates with other gamblers.
Prevention promotes so-called “responsible gambling”. “Responsible” alcohol drinking might be one or two glasses of red wine, which after all appears to provide some health benefits. However, this doesn’t apply to other addictive substances such as tobacco – even one cigarette has deleterious effects for the smoker and people nearby.
For gambling, since the occurrence of addiction cannot be predicted, the optimal approach is to simply enjoy other ways of socialising.
Dr Gerard Lalande is managing director of CEO-Health, which provides medical referrals for expatriates and customised executive medical check-ups in Thailand. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.