Two days ago a judge had a rattle at internet betting sites in the course of the trial and sentencing of Bryan Benjafield who stole in excess of £1 million from his employer over 18 months, squandering the lot on internet gambling websites. Judge Andrew Langdon announced his disbelief at how easy it was to blow so much money so quickly. Wow, it’s a big wild world out there isn’t it Your Honour? Fancy that! People are able spend whatever money they have on largely whatever they want. From behind his wig and gown our learned friend babbled: “It says something for the power of your addiction to gambling that, despite the low rate of return on your mindless betting, you carried on despite the obvious consequences. The ease with which a desperate man addicted to gambling could spend enormous sums is bluntly staggering. Internet or online gambling has made it much easier, regretfully, for enormous sums to be spent unthinkingly.” For his sins, one of which being putting his employer out of business and several fellow employees out of a job, Benjafield, was then sentenced to 5 years, and was told he would have to serve at least half of the sentence.

What pisses me off about this case is the carelessness with which the language of addiction is bandied about – not only by the defence lawyers, but also picked up unthinkingly by the judge, the court reporters, and the media. One report this week told us that “internet gambling is spiralling out of control.” Umm, out of WHOSE control, exactly? Continuing, “and there is little the government can do about it.” Right. As if it’s always the government’s responsibility to “do something” when it “gets out of control.” You’d think that internet betting was throwing late night parties, forcing kids to take drugs, breaking into people’s houses, and beating up little old ladies the way these people talk. Of course, implicit in the language of control is the concept of addiction – “internet gambling is spiralling out of control” actually means “people involved in internet gambling are losing control of themselves,” and thus by implication are not fully responsibile for their actions

The vast majority of news reports about gambling will inevitably mention the phrase “problem gamblers,” normally in the context of statistics showing how many people are doing it and how much money is in total being poured into the coffers of casino operators. Some reports, even generally well written newspapers like the Times, blurt out sentiments such as: “The websites carry few or no health warnings, even though they are potentially more dangerous than bricks-and-mortar casinos and betting shops.” More dangerous to your health? Are you more likely to get cancer, heart disease, or a stroke from online gaming? What nonsense.

All in all I’m utterly fed up with all the psycho-babble about the concept of addiction. Addiction seems to be everywhere. Believe it or not but there exists eBay addict support groups and telephone lines for people who just can‘t stop bidding on stuff. The human race seems to be in the clutches of a whole host of new addictions. These days we have addiction not only to hard drugs, but also to alcohol, smoking, gambling, shopping, porn, TV, junk food, and a million other supposed forms of addiction and pseudo-psychologists ready to cash in with a fancy name for such “disorders.” Personally I think there is only one name that should be applied to all these “addictions”: “Guilt-ridden, irresponsible weakness of the will.” This whole notion of addiction needs to be challenged much more than it ever is.

Here in Northern Ireland we had a run of TV advertisements for a help-line people can call if they wish to stop smoking. It runs something like this:

Patronising Tele-Assistant: “Smoker’s Helpline, how can I help you?”

Smoky Smokerson: “I’d like to stop smoking.”

Patronising Tele-Assistant: [incredibly cheerful tones]. “Well, you’ve taken the first step, and that’s great!”

Then we get a bunch of snapshots of the kinds of help and advise you can expect if you call the Smoker’s Helpline:

[terribly concerned] “So, how have you been getting on with quitting?”

[terribly inquisitive] “Have you tried patches or gum?”

[terribly helpful] “I can send you some information if you like.”

[terribly consoling] “Well, not everyone quits successfully the first time.”

There seems to be a great market here and I’m thinking of getting myself a slice of the pie by setting up my own help-line service. Perhaps something like this:

Smoky Smokerson: “ “I’d like to give up smoking”

Me: “Have you tried not buying cigarettes?”

Smoky Smokerson: “Ummm…well, no, but I was talking to this other guy who said something about patches or gum.”

Me: “Yes, indeed, perhaps you could get a great big patch, superglue it over your mouth so you can’t get the cigarettes in even though you really want to. Gum would be redundant after this.”

Smoky Smokerson: “Can you send me any information?”

Me: “Stop buying cigarettes. Stop accepting cigarettes when offered. I can put this into writing and mail it to you if you wish if you haven‘t quite grasped the spoken word.”

Here’s the cold hard truth. If you really don’t want to smoke you won’t. I’m sick and tired of people moaning that they can’t give this or that up. Yes you fucking can. Take smoking, the most popular example. Just what are people saying when they claim to be addicted to it? It’s hardly a genetic trait that we can do little about, like having blue eyes. There is no “must-suck-on-cigarettes gene.” The language of addiction is virtually always used to suggest irresistibility: the smoker can’t do other than smoke. Now, my knowledge of physics is patchy but as far as I’m aware there is no magnetic field surrounding people that sucks them into the local store and fixes their eyes on the cigarette section. As far as I’m aware there is no vocal compulsion, perhaps similar to tourettes, that forces people to utter “a pack of cigarettes please” against their will. And I have yet to hear a scientist expounding a theory of the irresistible universal physical mechanism by which someone’s hand is twisted behind their back to fetch the wallet.

The human spirit is much more robust than our new breed of pseudo-psychologists make out, with their nonsense that people are helpless victims of some monster – gambling, violence, smoking, burgers – over which they have no control. The truth is that it’s very easy not to gamble, smoke, punch someone, eat burgers. How don’t you gamble? You simply don’t perform the physical actions necessary to placing a bet: walking into a book-makers, lifting a pen, and selecting the 200-1 blind horse with three legs and a limp. How don’t you smoke? You don’t lift a cigarette, stick it in your mouth and light it. How don’t you eat junk food? You eat something else. It’s dead easy – in fact you eat all other food in exactly the same way. The wonders of the human mouth and digestive system, eh? How don’t you gamble online? You don’t log on to the internet, or if you do you don’t type into the address bar of your browser.

I’ll never buy into the psycho-babble about chemicals in the brain, peer-pressure, blah blah blah. Human beings are not determined or caused to act in the ways that they do. We choose our behaviour. We choose to act or not act in certain ways. Our concepts of morality and justice would be nonsense if this wasn’t so. We are responsible agents. And it’s defeatist weak-willed bollocks to suggest otherwise and whine about being addicted to something as if it isn’t in your power to change. As long as physical actions remain voluntary – and they do – the notion of addiction as an irresistible power is nonsense. What I find if you dig a little deeper is that smokers, and most other addicts, who want to give up will give up. Those who continue in their ways do so because they want to: not because they’re forced to by something outside their own control. If they whine about trying to give up I can only conclude that, given the increasing social unacceptability of smoking, (and other so-called forms of addiction), they wish to appear more noble by making a half-hearted attempt to stop something that they really don’t want to but feel guilty about.

Some time ago several members of my family were on the receiving end of a rant to this effect. My smart-arsed father retorted: “you’re fucking addicted to ranting about everything!”

No father. I choose to do it because I enjoy it.

Stephen Graham