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February 19, 2008

Obsessive gambling is now regarded as a mental illness - but, argues Theodore Dalrymple, does that not mean that the Disability Discrimination Act makes it illegal for bookies to discriminate against obsessive gamblers by banning them from their shops?

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Our confused attitudes towards gambling show that the British are fast turning themselves into a nation of slaves, where even the slave-masters are not free - argues Theodore Dalrymple.

A man named Calvert is suing William Hill, the bookmakers, because they allowed him to place ruinous bets in their establishment after he had asked them not to allow him to do so.

I confess that my instincts about gambling are highly puritanical. I despise it as a pastime and when my wife tells me that she is buying a lottery ticket I tell her that I would rather earn the money than win it in what the late Harold Wilson, referring to the establishment of the comparatively modest Premium Bonds, called "a squalid raffle".

I am old enough to remember the days when off-course betting was still illegal in Britain, though of course it took place, to my young eyes mainly in the barber's shop where I was sent to get my fortnightly haircut. This uncomfortable and boring operation would be interrupted by the barber's disappearance to the telephone, where he would speak a language that is still only partially comprehensible to me, offering odds and using terms such as "each way" that meant nothing to me then.

I had an uncle who was, if not ruined by gambling exactly, was certainly kept in a state of relative impoverishment by it - at least by comparison with what his financial situation would have been had he not gambled. There was a lot of tut-tutting in the family about this, but no one thought he was ill rather than merely foolish, and no one, as far as I remember, ever mentioned that he had derived many years of excitement and interest from his activities in recompense for the money he had lost. Everyone believed that he had simply thrown the money away and had received nothing in return; for my family, gambling was merely a tax on stupidity.

But to return to Mr Calvert. Many people have pointed out that if he had won 2.5 million instead of losing it, he is most likely to have complained to the courts or to anyone else. On the contrary, most likely he would have crowed in triumph and attributed his good fortune to his exceptional shrewdness. Whether anyone in history has ever won 2.5 million in this fashion is a question on which I possess no information.

Mr Calvert is suing the bookmakers on the assumption that he was suffering from a bona fide illness rather than a morally inglorious loss of self-control. That bible of psychiatric naivety and inhumanity, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, defines pathological gambling as the presence of at least five of the following (why not four or six?):
Preoccupation with gambling;

The need to gamble increasing amounts of money to achieve the
same levels of excitement;

Repeated unsuccessful attempts to control cut back or stop

Restlessness or irritability when trying to stop gambling;

Gambling as a means of escaping problems or dysphoria.
Returning ot gambling after losses;

Lying to family and others about the extent of gambling;

Commission of illegal acts such as fraud, theft, forgery and embezzlement to pay for gambling;

The jeopardy of career, education or family relationships because of gambling;

and The reliance on others to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.

Let us grant for a moment that the possession of five of these symptoms or more constitutes a genuine mental illness: what then?

Under the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, a person is disabled:

if he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse affect on his ability to carry out his normal day-to-day activities.
Ex hypothesi, Mr Calvert was (and for all I know still is) a disabled person. Certainly people who gamble excessively experience long-term adverse effects on normal day-to-day activities.

The Disability Discrimination Act also states that:

It is unlawful for a provider of services to discriminate against a disabled person in refusing to provide, or deliberately not providing, which he provides, or is prepared to provide, to members of the public.
This seems to suggest that, in asking William Hill not to allow him to gamble, Mr Calvert was inviting them to break the law, and a refusal to break the law cannot be itself unlawful (one might have supposed, and certainly hoped).

Indeed, if William Hill had complied with Mr Calvert's request, he might then have sued them under the Disability Discrimination Act, for there could be no clearer instance of discriminatory refusal to provide services to a disabled person than a refusal to allow him to place bets on the grounds that he was suffering from a mental illness that disabled him, namely pathological gambling. William Hill would have been denying him his inalienable human right to win back what he had hitherto lost.

As it happens, I know as a friendly acquaintance the manager of a large casino. Until quite recently, the regulation of casinos in this country was very successful, being a pragmatic compromise between permitting what people would do anyway if not permitted, and not providing any official encouragement for it.

As a matter of decency and humanity, the manager told me that he would exclude people for a time from his casino who were clearly gambling beyond their means. Of course, such people did not always make themselves obvious to him or his staff, but in so far as they did, he would attempt to help them come to their senses. He and his casino had no interest in ruining people: on the contrary, they would far rather that people gambled within their means for years on end than that they ruin themselves all at once.

In other words, the exercise of humanity requires discrimination. People ought to be treated differently because their situations, their needs, their tastes, and so forth, are different. The attempt to regulate relations between people too closely, by means of the law, in the name of an abstraction such as equality, leads to both absurdity and cruelty.

Between the claim that William Hill should act in loco parentis for their customers, and the demand that they should discriminate against no one, there does not seem much room for manoeuvre. The British are fast turning themselves into a nation of slaves, where even the slave-masters are not free.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.

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