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Why is gambling so addictive?

Thursday December 14 2017

Pathological gambling affects the brain the same way substance abuse does. PHOTO | TOM MWIRARIA

Pathological gambling affects the brain the same way substance abuse does. PHOTO | TOM MWIRARIA 

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A man wearing an oversized shirt stumbles as he walks towards a casino in Nairobi's Githurai estate.

At 23, John* is a shadow of his former self. Hollow cheekbones and sunken eyes form part of his pale face giving him a ghostly look.

He staggers as he approaches the slot machine, hopeful that today his luck will change. He inserts a Sh10 coin and hits the ‘Start’ button.

The machine begins to spin and when it stops, the result is the same as it has been the past few days. He has lost the first round as well the money he put in.

Feeling miserable, John* decides to try again. Before he knows it, he has played 10 rounds and lost each one. He reaches into his pockets for more coins but finds he has none left.


He lets out a dejected sigh as he turns around and falls onto the seat next to him. There are other players in the room but they also seem disconsolate as he is. Perhaps tomorrow will be a better day.


John's story is not unusual. In March this year, Geopoll revealed that Kenya has the highest number of gambling youth in sub-Saharan Africa. Uganda and Ghana came second and third respectively in the study that focused on the popularity of luck games.

Concerned over the runaway growth of irresponsible gaming, the Kenyan government also launched a crack down on illegal gaming dens in estates and pubs where they impounded slot machines and banned importation.

Parliament also proposed a penalty of between Sh5,000 to Sh2 million or imprisonment for a maximum two years for use of illegal gaming machines. However, the struggle to curb gambling remains fruitless as businessmen continue to set up slot machines on storefronts and even in villages across the country.


According to a Harvard medical journal titled Pathological gambling, the disorder is linked to a chemical substance in the brain that makes one addicted to it. The same study says gambling addicts are five times more likely to be addicted to alcohol.

Symptoms of gambling addiction include irrational behaviour after loss of a game, irritability upon attempt to withdraw, escapism, broken relationships, absenteeism at work or school and perpetual dishonesty over money matters.

Genetic studies suggest that people who develop pathological gambling or a substance use disorder are more likely to be those who have a particular gene type, alleles, associated with impulsive behaviour.


“Pathological gambling affects the brain the same way substance abuse does. It leads to increased production of dopamine, the reward neurohormone, such that the gambler gets hooked and becomes low when he doesn't gamble. Sometimes the only cure is intense psychotherapy," says Dr Paul Bundi Karau.

According to the Harvard journal, many strategies for treating the disorder and solely based on those used for substance abuse. READ: Inside the mind of a gambler

Gamblers Anonymous, a 12-step program for rehabilitation of addicts has its criteria drawn from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It is probably the most prominent self-help method available for gambling addicts.

Another remedy is motivational interviewing where a therapist guides his patient to explore and resolve the feelings and behaviour associated with the addiction, however uncomfortable it may be.