Gambling is a pastime, not a disease
American addiction expert Stanton Peele chastises British commentators who see gamblers as fickle victims
By Brendan O'Neill
'As a general rule, convincing people that they are powerless to influence events in their lives is not a good way of going about things. And telling gamblers that they are sick or diseased is likely only to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.'
Stanton Peele, the loudest critic of what he calls America's 'addiction to addiction' - where it has become the norm to see everything from compulsive shopping to biting your fingernails as diseases that require medical or psychological intervention - has come to Britain to give a talk at a conference in Bath, Somerset.
He arrives at a time of great concern about gambling addiction, where numerous commentators claim that the New Labour government's support for more super casinos will cause an 'epidemic' of problem gambling and precipitate a 'public health crisis' (1).
'That kind of language seems based on the idea that people can't help themselves', says Peele. 'In fact they can.'
Peele has been described as a thorn in the side of America's therapy industry. In the land that has given us Oprah, phrases such as 'damaged goods', and books on chocolate, shopping and sex addiction (who can forget when the slightly slimy Hollywood star Michael Douglas confessed to being a 'recovering sex addict'?),
Peele is in a minority who criticises the 'medicalisation' of personal and social problems. 'The US in particular specialises in trying to define people's problems in medical terms', he says. 'It's tempting because then you think you can come up with some treatment and solve the problem. But of course it doesn't work like that.'
One of his big worries is that defining every compulsive experience as a kind of illness ends up convincing people that there is little they can do to overcome their difficulties.
'The disease model of addiction makes everything into an accident. It says "Oh you have a gene or a certain propensity and that is why you do what you do".
It discourages people from facing up to the uncomfortable truths of why they spend too much time on slot machines or have 15 drinks instead of three. It tells people there isn't much they can do to turn their life around, without a lifetime of guidance from therapists, that is.'
So people who scoff too much chocolate aren't just being greedy or comfort-eating to avoid something else - they apparently have a medical addiction triggered, according to some accounts, by the 'love chemical' phenylethylamine found in chocolate.
And Michael Douglas, pre-Catherine Zeta-Jones, was not just a serial womaniser or cheat (allegedly) who could stop sleeping around if he really wanted to; he was a 'sex addict' who could not control his urges.
In Britain, all eyes are currently focused on gambling. The government has faced fierce criticism over its Gambling Bill, which will allow eight Vegas-style super-casinos to open and for 24-hour gambling in certain establishments.
Reading some of the critical coverage you would think the government had implanted a disease in the population. It might be fighting the arrival of bird flu, but apparently it is encouraging the spread of 'gambling sickness' (2).
The Daily Mail says Britain 'faces an epidemic of gambling addiction'. '[C]rime will increase, lives will be ruined and families destroyed as punters lured by the promise of big-money prizes become hooked...mesmerised', the paper says, envisioning a 28 Days Later-style Britain with slot machines rather than monkeys turning the masses into zombies (3).
In the Guardian this week, Polly Toynbee worried about the creation of more and more 'dead-eyed punters', and accused the government of giving a 'green light for an addiction that blights children's lives' (4). Others have explicitly discussed gambling as an illness.
In 2004, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Gambling Bill said that if the government went ahead with its plans then the Department of Health should be readied to deal with the inevitable 'public health' consequences (5).
The BBC website reports that gambling is an 'illness' which some people have to 'live with every day until they die' (6). There is even talk - though more in America than in Britain - of a 'gambling gene' that makes some people become hooked on the slots or the horses (7).
'It's easy to forget that for most people gambling is a pastime, not a disease', says Peele. 'A lot of people drink alcohol and only a few of them become addicted - and quite a lot of people gamble and not too many of them become addicted. Worrying endlessly about the creation of more incurable gambling addicts because super casinos are opening is like fretting about more alcoholics every time a new bar opens on your street.'
Peele is no fan of gambling. He recognises that for some people gambling can become problem gambling, and argues that, yes, it can be compulsive and addictive.
'It is a very immediate and powerful experience that has the capability of captivating people's consciousness with detrimental effects, and that's a kind of definition of addiction', he says.
He's also critical of governments which profess to be terribly worried about compulsive behaviour in the general population but who sponsor casinos because gambling has big tax benefits. He points out an irony in America.
Certain state governments are starting to 'feel the financial pinch', he says, of having successfully reduced the number of smokers through bans on smoking in public places and other measures - so now they are looking to gambling as a way of making money. 'The way they see it, at least gambling doesn't cause lung cancer', he says, sceptically.
But Peele has little time for the idea that every gambler is a short step from becoming a problem gambler, and that these problem gamblers are somehow zombies on a path to self-destruction.
'I don't think experts realise how damaging it is to tell people they are weak and cannot help themselves. If you talk to alcoholics now they will say they can't overcome it, that they have to live with their "disease" forever. How useful is it to tell overweight people or gamblers that they have a disease? It is such a strange enterprise.'
He notes that very often it is liberals who pursue this enterprise. 'In general I'm a political liberal', he says. 'So I'm surprised that liberals are attracted by the idea that people can't control their behaviour and need to be pitied. That is a very infantilising view.'
In fact, individuals often come through their trials and tribulations. 'People can overcome these things on their own. In the United States, the growth in gambling is highly focused on college campuses.
If you're a 20-year-old student worried about your finals, and spending a lot of time on gambling websites trying to forget it all, does that mean you're a lifetime gambling addict?
No. And convincing people that they are is counterproductive. In most cases, like with drinking and drugs, people mature, they develop responsibilities like work and families, and they realise that they have to desist from their bad habits. In short, they get a life.'
Indeed, at the conference 'Unhooked Thinking' in Bath tomorrow, Peele will argue that most people who develop a drinking or gambling problem are better left untreated, or certainly untreated by disease-model therapists.
'I will reveal that even in the US, where alcohol treatment is rampant, three quarters of people who were ever alcoholic do not undergo treatment - and a larger percentage of these people overcome alcoholism than those who undergo treatment. Those who are treated by something like Alcoholics Anonymous - which very explicitly tells them they have a disease - are often less able to control or moderate their alcoholic intake.'
'And when it comes to problem gamblers, too', says Peele, 'let's not tell them they're diseased or zombified. Most of them will use their own volition to get a grip.'
(1) Warning from MPs on gambling laws, BBC News, 8 April 2004
(2) Hundreds of thousands face gambling addiction, Daily Mail, 15 October 2004
(3) Hundreds of thousands face gambling addiction, Daily Mail, 15 October 2004
(4) A green light for an addiction that blights children's lives, Guardian, 18 April 2006
(5) Warning from MPs on gambling laws, BBC News, 8 April 2004
(6) Wheel of misfortune, BBC News, 7 April 2004
(7) Compulsive gambling a genetic disorder?, CNN, 5 September 1996