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Sober Nation

Putting Recovery On The Map

08-20-19 | By

Is Gambling As Addictive As Drugs and Alcohol?

Gambling is a widely popular hobby for numerous people across the world. Luxury halls in Vegas, Macau, and Monte Carlo attract millions of visitors and billions of dollars yearly. Gamblers enjoy shiny slots, green-cloth poker tables, and intriguing sports betting offers. By the majority of players, gambling activities are taken as recreational and entertaining but there are some people, who suffer from this pastime. They are compulsive or pathological gamblers and they definitely need professional help.

What Is Gambling Addiction?

Recently, researchers, gambling experts, and psychiatrists have agreed on the importance of recognizing gambling addiction. However, before 2013, the global scientific community had considered the problem a regular disorder.

The story dates back to 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) issued the third edition of its key handbook called DSM. In this guide, American researchers introduced the concept of pathological gambling and defined it as an impulse control disorder with all the remarkable symptoms. The new type of illness was placed in the same section with kleptomania and pyromania, but was separated from addictions.

On the global level, the World Health Organization regularly issues its own catalog called ICD. The 1949 edition was the first document to feature mental disorders, yet, it didn’t list a unique code for gambling problems. ICD-9 (1975) included the pathological gambling among other unclassified disorders of impulse control, while ICD-10 (1990) placed this problem in the habit and impulse disorders section alongside pyromania, as well.

For decades, the mainstream medicine hasn’t recognized the described problem as an addiction. Frankly speaking, neither does it now, but there’s some progress, for sure.

Current Views of Mainstream Medicine

The WHO is an extremely powerful authority in the healthcare industry, but the APA was the first to name the discussed illness an addiction. In 2013, the organization revealed the DSM-5, where readers could find the gambling disorder term alongside alcohol and drug addictions! American physicians and scientists claim that the mentioned disorders share a lot of similar symptoms and stages with the gambling addiction – tolerance, withdrawal, reward craving, etc.

Just a while ago, the WHO released the first version of ICD-11, which also featured the gambling disorder definition. But there’s an interesting catch. The new handbook had two eponymous subsections with the same code, 6C50. The paradox is that they belong to two different categories: disorders due to addictive behaviors (with drugs and alcohol) and impulse control disorders (with kleptomania and pyromania).

Probably, the WHO tries to separate episodic problems from continuous addiction. But most likely, scientists still try to figure out the exact definition of the illness because this edition of ICD isn’t officially endorsed. Anyway, experts list three primary symptoms of gambling addiction:

  • Poor control over gambling activities
  • Prioritizing gambling over other routines
  • Persistent gambling despite harmful consequences

There are chances that therapists will soon recognize the addiction because of recent responsible gambling studies and stats. In fact, the research shows that the number of people affected by problem gambling is growing exponentially: the USA has 3% of problem gamblers, the UK – 0.7%, Canada – 2-3%.

Studies and Mentions

Mainly, the modern supporters of reclassification base the case on the brain imaging tech and neurology. They claim that traditionally recognized addictions trigger the same brain parts as the gambling addiction does. Actually, they talk about the reward system.

Luke Clark, a psychologist from the UBC, focuses on two brain areas:

  1. The ventral striatum. This organ is known as the reward center of our body. In some studies with MRI, addicts showed the reduced response from the ventral striatum which may be the physiological reason of the developed addictions. 
  2. The prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for decisions and impulse control. Again, compulsive gamblers and alcoholics had lower activity compared to healthy people. This means, addicts do not control their actions under the impact of triggers. 

Finally, the researchers say that not only the prefrontal cortex but also the medial parietal cortex affects self-control. Brain scans reveal that the problem may be in the communication between cortices.


At the same time, most experts admit that they face “a chicken and egg” problem. They aren’t sure whether brain abnormalities cause addictions or compulsive gambling results in these problems. Researchers need to carry out longitudinal studies to track all the changes and compare brain responses of different individuals. Without proper funding, these global initiatives are impossible.

Less Popular Alternative Opinions

Finally, there’s another point of view. Some physicians such as Fadi Anjoul say that problem gamblers aren’t addicts because they rarely have general symptoms. Thus, it’s better to consider the problem an obsession and treat it with cognitive therapy which helps people control themselves. We can neither prove nor disprove this statement but more therapists classify the illness as an addiction similar to alcohol or drugs.

Understanding Addictions

Although some researchers refuse to recognize gambling addiction, the scientific community benefits from the past studies a lot. On one hand, experts can treat compulsive gamblers effectively now, so patients stand a good chance to overcome the problem. On the other hand, additional research should boost the progress and solve the mentioned ambiguities.

Moreover, gambling disorder studies help to understand addictions better in general. Timothy Fong, a psychiatrist from UCLA stated earlier that scientists recognized addictions as processes highly linked to substance use: alcohol, drugs etc. But now it’s clear that various behaviors can result in human’s brain deviations, so addictions come with more prerequisites. 

Responsible Gambling

Overall, the global healthcare community hasn’t reached the consensus yet. Some experts insist on treating problem gambling as addiction, while others stick to more neutral terms like disorders or obsessions. But compulsive gamblers still suffer, so we should focus on prevention of such problems. In this case, responsible gambling organizations are considered a safe solution as they try to promote healthy gameplay, educate gamblers on casino tricks, and make people aware of risks.


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