A GAMBLING epidemic is spreading in Edinburgh with internet casinos to blame for the problem, it was claimed today.
The number of addicts attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings in the Capital has doubled in the last 12 months, with professional sportsmen and business people among the new members.
Most of the increase has been attributed to a huge growth in online gambling, with Edinburgh’s relatively affluent, computer-literate population seen as particularly susceptible to the craze.
Relaxed banking rules which allow people to easily transfer huge sums of money into special internet gambling accounts, and the ready availability of credit cards, have also been blamed.
One businessman in the Capital racked up 70,000 on his company expenses account in only two months, after clearing his bank account and "maxing" his credit cards through online gambling. His problem was such that he blew around 150,000 on online-betting in the space of a few months.
An office worker has also come forward, saying he is spending up to four hours a day using online casinos at work.
One long-standing Edinburgh GA member said: "In the past year the number of people coming to our meetings has roughly doubled. Last week, there were 25, with five regulars in attendance. Last April we were having 15 or 16.
"About 70 per cent of the new members are addicted to computer gambling. We’ve had businessmen and sportsmen coming in, several of whom are finding themselves addicted to internet gambling.
"I blame the banks and the building societies. They’ve made it far too easy for people to access money. They need to do something about it because it’s causing so much misery and heartache."
The member began gambling when he was 12 tossing coins against a wall and claims to have blown around 400,000.
He added: "It’s become an epidemic. The Scottish Parliament needs to do something about it."
Another compulsive gambler, who has extensively researched the issue, said: "There are plenty of people in Edinburgh who are losing 20,000 to 30,000 a week on internet gambling.
"It’s affecting a wider spectrum of people. If you went to Musselburgh races you would see different classes of people in different parts of the course. But the internet wipes those division out. It’s classless.
"Edinburgh is more affected than elsewhere because there is more money available and people tend to be more computer-literate. More and more are getting sucked in."
In 2002 the UK gambling industry was worth 42 billion, with two per cent attributed to internet gambling. The figure for 2004 is estimated to top 55bn - with ten per cent being gambled online.
Professor Peter Collins, a government adviser on gambling and chief executive of help group Gamcare, said the number of people seeking help for gambling addiction was on the rise.
He said: "The more convenient gambling is, the more people are likely to gamble on impulse. The more exciting gambling is, the bigger the prize and faster the action, the more there is a risk of a small minority becoming addicted.
"There is definitely an increased use of helplines of one sort of another."
Unregulated, offshore online casinos are known to lure new customers by fixing the casinos to guarantee pay-outs to first-time players. Prof Collins, who is director of the Centre for the Study of Gambling at Salford University, said it was time to clamp down on the "anarchy" of such online gambling outlets.
He said: "Most British gamblers would rather gamble with a company that is based in Britain and which have a substantial degree of regulation.
"If that option was available it would drive the unregulated offshore companies out of business. It’s anarchy at the moment."
A spokesman for William Hill, one of several high street bookmakers which run UK-based online casinos, said: "We are not remotely interested in encouraging people to gamble beyond their means."