Bookies could scrap their predatory tactics ‘today if they wanted’, according to the country’s mental health chief.
But NHS England’s Claire Murdoch said they won’t because the temptation to make huge profits at the expense of vulnerable punters is too great.
Mrs Murdoch last night wrote a letter to the gambling industry calling for an end to ‘shameful’ betting practices.
She demanded they scrap bet-to-view live streaming of sporting events, pervasive advertising and free offers and VIP experiences for big-spending customers.
But, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Mrs Murdoch admitted she doesn’t expect them to voluntarily give up the practices.
Mrs Murdoch said: ‘This industry could make the changes I’ve asked them to make today, if they wanted to.’
However, she agreed that regulation and legislation was likely the only way gambling firms could be forced to change.
Mrs Murdoch also declined to say whether she thought the NHS’ child and adolescent mental health service (Camhs) was fit for purpose.
She was probed about a BBC Panorama report that found young people were being left to suffer due to huge waiting lists.
Mrs Murdoch said: ‘They [Camhs] are seeing a huge number of people more, we are going to double the support over the next four years to children and young people, colleagues across the country are working hard on, not just seeing more people but, transforming the care they offer.
‘So, for example, we’ve set services up this year in schools working differently. So, we don’t always want to wait until someone’s referred to Camhs, what we want to do and are doing is intervening earlier with families, with schools and with others.
‘Is there a long way still to go, are we determined to deliver our long-term plan? Yes and yes again.’
In her letter last night, Mrs Murdoch said the link between betting and mental illness is ‘increasingly clear’ and the prevalence of gambling in society is ‘causing harm’.
She warned bookmakers the Health Service could no longer ‘pick up the pieces’ from gambling addiction.
Mrs Murdoch said the NHS has been forced to open 14 gambling addiction clinics in a £2.3billion investment in mental health but industry-wide action is now needed.
‘For seven decades the NHS has adapted services in response to current challenges,’ her letter says. ‘But we should not be expected to pick up the pieces from lives damaged by avoidable harm.’
The letter, which has the backing of ministers and MPs, has been sent to the chief executives of Britain’s biggest gambling companies, including Bet365, Ladbrokes Coral, William Hill, Paddy Power and BetFred.
The firms have agreed to meet Mrs Murdoch for a summit on the issue of problem gambling, which is linked to self-harm, depression, anxiety and suicide.
The landmark intervention follows a campaign by the Daily Mail to highlight the dangers of gambling addiction and the aggressive tactics used by some firms to keep customers hooked.
Last week, the Mail revealed that the Football Association had struck a £750million agreement allowing seven UK betting firms to stream cup matches.
Boris Johnson was among those to condemn the FA’s TV deal, which is now being probed by the gambling watchdog. And yesterday football bosses were hauled to Parliament for a meeting with sports minister Nigel Adams and arts minister Helen Whately.
Mrs Murdoch told the Mail: ‘The links between the sporting industry and gambling are deeply disturbing, and the tactics used by some firms are shameful.
‘It is high time sporting bodies get back to their roots and start focusing on fans and families enjoying watching their heroes play, rather than allowing firms to hijack sport in pursuit of profit.’
The growth of gambling in football has gone hand in hand with an aggressive push into online betting by gambling firms. Experts believe this has led to a public health crisis, with 430,000 problem gamblers in England, including 55,000 children.
Big losers are enticed to keep gambling with a dizzying array of VIP perks and cash rebates.
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said: ‘The Government is absolutely committed to protecting vulnerable people from the risks of gambling-related harm, and will be carrying out a review of the Gambling Act to ensure it is fit for the digital age.’
Labour MP Carolyn Harris, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on gambling harm, added: ‘Enough is enough, this country can no longer put up with the devastating and tragic consequences of gambling. It has become a major public health crisis.
‘I fully support the NHS for taking on gambling firms. They need to be brought into line and all these stricter measures should be signed into law. We wouldn’t license a drug dealer, so why do we license gambling firms.’
The Betting and Gaming Council, which represents bookmakers, said in a reply to the letter: ‘We take our responsibility to our customers incredibly seriously and we are determined to raise standards and improve safer gambling.’
The council said it had already implemented measures including new age-verification measures, bans on advertising during sports matches and waiving their exclusivity to FA Cup matches.
It added: ‘On behalf of the chief executives I would very much like to invite you to meet with us at the earliest opportunity to discuss your concerns, what we are doing to raise standards in our industry and to ensure safer gambling.’
Ministers are currently reviewing the 2005 Gambling Act and are widely expected to tighten the rules governing how bookmakers operate.