Gambling Addiction and Alcohol Addiction – A Comparison

Addiction is common. We usually associate it with specific behaviours, such as excessive drug taking, excessive alcohol consumption and excessive gambling. But you can become addicted to practically anything…

 

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Here’s a picture of a puppy to make up for inflicting that video on you:

A cute puppy labrador

We thought it would be interesting to write a blog comparing gambling addiction to alcohol addiction.

You should read this article if you want to learn about the similarities and differences between alcohol and gambling addiction, including tips for finding help.

What Is Addiction?

The NHS defines addictions as, “Not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you”.

“Harmful” is probably the most important word in that definition. Drinking alcohol and gambling aren’t bad in themselves. They become problems when they start to affect you negatively and consistently.

It doesn’t feel good to have a hangover or to lose a bet, but as long as it isn’t consistent, and as long as it doesn’t have a significant negative impact on your life, it’s unlikely to be a problem.

The paradox is that even though addiction is harmful, it still feels good in a sense. For example, gambling addicts are usually looking for the mental “high” they get from winning, but the long-term consequences are harmful.

The “high” serves a purpose; it makes people feel good.  So, addiction is also about sacrificing long-term rewards for short-term rewards.

Some addictions can be physical (e.g., nicotine) and some can be mental (e.g., gambling).

What Causes Addiction?

No single explanation exists about the causes of addiction. People develop addictions for different reasons. These reasons vary from the need for stimulation to the need to remove stimulation, to block things out, to remember, and much more.

Most people will need addiction therapy to find out why they’ve developed an addiction.

Physical vs Psychological Addiction: Alcohol & Gambling

The difference between gambling and drinking addiction is the nature of the addiction. In other words, the driving forces motivating the behaviour.

Two key drives underpin addictive behaviour: physical drives and psychological drives.

Alcohol Addiction: Physical & Psychological

Alcohol addiction is both physical and psychological. People drink so often that they develop a physical dependency on alcohol. Stopping can result in serious health problems, including death. Colloquially, we call this the Delirium Tremens (DTs).

Symptoms of the DTs include:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Fast Heart Rate

 

It’s extremely unpleasant. The DTs happen when you quit drinking too fast – i.e., quit cold turkey.  You can die from the DTs.

Psychological addiction, on the other hand, is emotional and cognitive. People develop a mental attachment to alcohol, e.g. believing that they can’t live without it.

Psychological addiction can also come with physical and emotional symptoms. These physical symptoms are less serious than the ones listed above. Instead, a person’s emotions trigger a physical response. Symptoms are not triggered by the body’s dependence on the substance.

They include:

  • Restlessness
  • Palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Tremor

Gambling Addiction: Psychological

Gambling addiction is a psychological addiction. It is not a physical addiction, so unlike alcohol addiction, you can’t die from quitting cold turkey.

You might get the physical symptoms associated with psychological addiction (restlessness, palpitations, etc.), but you won’t become seriously physically ill. Although, a 2018 study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that people with gambling disorder had a 15-fold increase in suicide mortality compared to average. It’s a tricky one, because whilst suicide is a physical act, chemical dependence on gambling doesn’t cause suicide to happen.

Despite this, experts consider gambling addiction to be psychological and not physical because the physical effects of gambling addiction are less severe.

In fact, there’s controversy about whether gambling is even an addiction. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) only included gambling in the 1980s. The DSM is the manual that most health professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders worldwide. It only recently (DSM-5 2013) changed its diagnostic criteria to align gambling addiction with substance addiction.

We don’t use the DSM in the UK, but we do use the World Health Organisation, “International Classification of Diseases” (ICD). We’re on the 11th edition now, which has also reclassified gambling addiction to align with substance addiction.

A picture of a head made of bubbles and the bubbles fan out behind it. To represent psychology. It's made in different shades of blue.

Here’s the definition from ICD-11:

“Gambling disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gambling behaviour, which may be online (i.e., over the internet) or offline, manifested by:

  1. impaired control over gambling (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context);
  2. increasing priority given to gambling to the extent that gambling takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and
  3. continuation or escalation of gambling despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

 

The behaviour pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning. The pattern of gambling behaviour may be continuous or episodic and recurrent. The gambling behaviour and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months in order for a diagnosis to be assigned, although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met and symptoms are severe.”

Contrast with the ICD-10 definition of Alcohol Problems

Alcohol problems are much more diverse. The ICD uses different categories for different problems and the definitions are much longer. They distinguish between “harmful use”, “dependence syndrome”, “withdrawal state”, “withdrawal state with delirium”, etc.

This reflects the more complicated nature of alcoholism compared to gambling. This isn’t to say that gambling addiction is not serious. It can have life-changing implications. It’s just that the risks with alcohol are much broader.

Gambling Vs Alcohol Statistics

I thought it would be interesting to compare statistics on gambling and alcohol usage:

  • In a survey conducted by the gambling commission 2019, 47% of people admitted gambling in the past 4 weeks.

A stick man and a stick woman with statistics about gambling for each gender

 

  • In England in 2018, 49% of adults admitted to drinking every week and 82% drank in the past 12 months.

 

A stick man and a stick woman with statistics about alcohol statistics for each gender

 

It probably comes as no surprise to learn that men gamble and drink at slightly higher rates than women do. What I found interesting is that there’s only a 2% difference for gambling between men and women but a 16% difference for drinking between men and women. I thought it would be the other way around. What did you think?

I think the perception that men gamble more comes from the gambling films I’ve seen. They’re quite male-centric.

Also, it could be because of the type of betting that men and women participate in. For example, a study conducted in Victoria, Australia, found that women are more likely than men are to play bingo and that men are more likely than women are to play table games.

Differences between Rates of Problem Gambling and Dependent Alcohol Consumption

Picture of cartoon beer glass and a poker chip with statistics in them which are outlined in the next two sentences.

Drinkaware found that 1.9% of the population of England were harmfully or moderately dependent on alcohol.  That’s more than a million people with a moderate or high dependency on alcohol.

In comparison, The Gambling Commission found that, in 2018, 0.5% of the population of England were problem gamblers. That’s 280,000.

In terms of numbers, alcohol is the bigger threat when it comes to people’s wellbeing…

…But What Are the Effects of Alcohol and Gambling on Wellbeing?

Both alcohol dependency and problem gambling can have a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing.

The Effects of Problem Gambling (source: Gamcare)

  • Financial distress (e.g., inability to pay bills, maxing credit cards, taking out loans)
  • Extreme emotions and/or mood swings
  • Spending too much time gambling
  • Using gambling as a way to manage emotions
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling depressed or anxious
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Arguing more with family
  • Finding it difficult to focus on other things
  • Spending less time socialising
  • Lying to friends and family about money and losses
  • Stealing money from friends and family

 

Because gambling doesn’t damage the body per se, it can continue unchallenged for a long time. Problem gamblers can reach a critical point (i.e. feeling suicidal) before anyone around them realises.

Problem gambling doesn’t just affect the person. It affects their immediate family and friends too. It can lead to the breakdown of relationships that can have lasting consequences.

The Effects of Alcohol Addiction

I don’t want to downplay gambling addiction. It’s extremely problematic, leading to the breakup of families and suicide…

…Alcohol addiction is on another level. The risks and consequences are broader, more serious, and have a bigger impact on the people around them. For instance, for every one person dependent on alcohol, five other people will be harmed.

The effects of alcohol dependency are too broad to list everything, but here are some of its significant effects (source: Drinkaware):

  • Lack of interest in previous normal activities
  • Appearing intoxicated more frequently
  • Alcohol tolerance
  • Looking tired or unwell
  • Being irritable
  • Being unable to stop drinking
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues
  • Lying to friends and family
  • Driving when intoxicated
  • Withdrawal symptoms when stopping drinking (e.g. seizures, hallucinations, feeling unwell)
  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Higher chance of developing certain types of cancer

What Help Is Available?

Fortunately, we have come a long way as a country in helping people with addictions of all kinds, including both gambling and alcohol addictions.

The first thing to do with either problem is to acknowledge that you have a problem. It’s the founding principle of the 12-step programmes. It’s also a principle in newer forms of therapy, such as ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).

To help you understand if you have a problem, you can use the following tools:

Help with Gambling Addiction

UK laws are strict when it comes to gambling, and any casino that operates here must have provisions for helping problem gamblers.

Here’s are some tools that can help you limit problem gambling:

  • Self-exclusion tools and gambling management tools – you can request gambling companies and operators to exclude you. They must take reasonable steps to prevent you from gambling during the exclusion period (minimum 6-months).
  • Website blocking tools – GamBlock will block gambling sites specifically. You can install them on your desktop and Android devices.

 

As well as these initiatives, the casinos have ways of identifying problem gamblers. They use algorithms to spot behavioural patterns that indicate a person is gambling to dangerous levels.

Casinos also have to use a system called “Know Your Customer” (KYC). This is a system of checks to make sure everything’s legal. For example, they will ask you to prove your identity. They might also ask you to prove where your deposit came from if it’s large. Here, you might need to show proof of earnings, bank statements, trust deeds, etc. They will ask you to prove your identity

Besides the casinos, there you can find help in other places too:

 

There are also therapists across the UK offering treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to problem gamblers.

Help with Problem Drinking

Whilst there is help with problem drinking, it’s harder to stop the problem at the source. With gambling, you can self-exclude but people with a drinking problem find it extremely easy to buy alcohol. The exception is when they are intoxicated pubs and off-licences can refuse to serve them.

There is a reason why pubs and off-licences do not automatically refuse to serve alcoholics – withdrawal. An alcoholic being unable to drink can cause the DTs, which can kill a person. People with severe alcoholism need alcohol to survive.

To stop drinking, an alcoholic will need to go through a detox programme. You can find detox programmes through your GP, or you can pay for private treatments at places like The Priory.

There are also plenty of helplines:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): they offer free self-help and the 12-step programme.
  • We Are With You: these are UK-wide treatment centres to help individuals and families cope with alcohol misuse.
  • Adfam: a charity helping families affected by drugs and alcohol.
  • SMART Recovery: a group setting to help people understand if they have an alcohol problem and help them make healthy changes.

Summary

Well, that was a long article! I hope you reached the end and that you found it informative and helpful. Both alcohol and gambling can harm your life and the lives of the people around you. Fortunately, there is plenty of help available for people who do experience problems.

There are ways forward and you can escape addiction and find healthy ways to cope with the stresses and strains of life.

We wish anyone who is struggling all the best.