A CAMPAIGN targeting an Inverness community has been launched to promote responsible gambling.
The programme – the first of its kind in Scotland – will take place in Merkinch where there has been controversy over the number of betting outlets opening in recent years.
There are now three in close proximity, with 12 gambling machines, prompting concerns from community leaders that the area – one of the most deprived in the Highlands – has too many.
Merkinch Gamble Support Week is the result of a partnership between the Association of British Bookmakers in Scotland (ABB Scotland) and local charity For the Right Reasons, which helps people tackle their addiction, including to drugs and alcohol.
The campaign, which will involve bookmakers William Hill and Ladbrokes, runs from June 19 to 23 with support from Paisley charity RCA Trust, specialists with 30 years’ experience in addiction support.
It will include advice on responsible gambling in shops, confidential counselling sessions and presentations to senior pupils at Inverness High School on the risks associated with problem gambling.
Donald Morrison, spokesman for ABB Scotland, said it was the first time his organisation had run a responsible gambling campaign centred on a specific community.
"Problem gambling in Scotland is low – at 0.7 per cent – and in decline according to the Scottish Government’s own figures," he said.
"However, when For the Right Reasons suggested there was a need for a local campaign in Merkinch, we were happy to fund such an initiative as part of our continuing commitment to promote responsible gambling.
"ABB Scotland has been at the forefront of nationwide campaigns to tackle problem gambling and provide counselling support for people worried about their gambling activity but this is the first time we have run a campaign in Scotland centred on a specific community.
"Hopefully it will serve as a model for other areas.
"We are pleased to be working with For the Right Reasons and the RCA Trust to deliver this campaign and would encourage anyone with concerns about gambling to visit one of our free, confidential counselling sessions."
The campaign is being backed by Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart who recently visited the Ladbrokes and William Hill shops in the area.
"All of us enjoy a flutter from time to time, whether it’s at the bingo, on the National Lottery or at the local bookie," he said.
"For the vast majority of people, gambling is a fun experience but for some people it can become a problem. I’m encouraged that the latest figures from the Scottish Government show a drop in the level of problem gambling.
"However, there is no room for complacency and it is important that we continue to promote responsible gambling messages and provide support for those who get into difficulty."
Richard Burkitt, director of For the Right Reasons, has been a fierce critic of the number of betting shops allowed to open in Merkinch.
He said ABB Scotland had worked with his charity to develop the pilot project and looked forward to further campaigns in the future.
"While the majority of people gamble for fun, a small number experience problems and it’s important that the gambling industry does more to support those who get into difficulty," he said.
"I think this campaign is better than nothing. Let’s see how many people turn up and let’s hear people’s stories. I hope people will go and talk to the counsellors."
Mr Burkitt still felt strongly that legislation should be introduced so that only one betting shop could be located in one street.
Inverness Central councillor Richard Laird speculated that the industry had been forced into running the campaign but was pleased to see it acknowledge it had to take responsibility for ensuring people’s gambling did not become a problem. He said he would be interested to see what events were planned and what the campaign achieved.
"I have seen healthy eating campaigns conducted by fast food companies which have been backdoor adverts," he said.
He was also pleased that new planning laws had been introduced to curb the proliferation of betting shops in areas.
"It is too late to stop three appearing in Merkinch but it will stop a fourth appearing," Cllr Laird said. "It will help stop other communities from having this problem."
Confidential one-to-one counselling sessions will be held at Merkinch Welfare Hall on June 22 and 23, between noon and 7pm, for anyone concerned about their gambling activity. They are open to anyone who lives in Inverness. No appointment is necessary.