PLANS for a massive casino in Southampton will turn thousands of city residents into gambling addicts, it has been warned.

The proposal will generate a huge rise in the number of punters who develop a problem, an addiction expert claimed.

Consultant psychiatrist Simon Kelly, who treats gambling addicts at Marchwood Priory, believes one in 100 people have an inborn risk of becoming problem gamblers. He has already seen increasing numbers of patients with betting addictions come to the Priory for treatment in the six years he has worked there. He warns that it can destroy lives.

Last month, the Government's Casino Advisory Panel recommended Southampton as a home for one of eight "large" casinos across the country. It would be the only one on the south coast and is set to form part of ambitious plans to revamp the Mayflower Park area.

Dr Kelly fears a Las Vegas-style casino - three times the size of the current Grosvenor Casino in West Quay Road - could turn Southampton into a city of gamblers.

He said: "The big casino in Southampton is likely to increase the number of people who indulge in recreational gambling. It is also likely to create more pathological gamblers.

"Evidence suggests that the more exposure to gambling we have, the more people develop problems with it."

Dr Kelly said one per cent of people had a "background risk" - an inherent trait - of becoming addicted gamblers.

He added: "There is a huge distinction between having a flutter and getting into problems. Gambling can impact on someone's family, social life, work life and home life. It can have devastating consequences - lives can be destroyed."

Those most at risk of becoming addicted to gambling are adolescents, young adults, people from ethnic minorities or those from lower social classes.

Exposed Dr Kelly warned that easy access to gambling via the Internet and scratch cards was fuelling young people's appetite for the addictive hobby.

"Young people are already exposed to significant increases in gambling on the Internet. They are subconsciously becoming addicted at an early age," he said.

"Gambling is to do with the reward signal in the brain. It raises dopamine, which stimulates the heart and increases blood flow to organs. There is always the thought you will win, clear your debts - it's a vicious circle as you continue to gamble to make back losses."

He and his colleagues treat gambling addiction patients with therapy, plus anti-depressant and mood-stabilising drugs. The doctor believes education is the only way forward.

He said: "Psycho-education needs to be enhanced. Are the public aware of when someone's gambling habits become a problem? It would be helpful if education programmes included awareness around addictions to things like alcohol and gambling.

"We want people to be aware gambling can be a devastating addiction."

City council leader Councillor Adrian Vinson takes a pragmatic view. He said: "This is a significant opportunity for Southamp-ton to advance economic regeneration in the city. However, we are mindful of concerns over the possible adverse impact of gambling.

"We will now be working hard to manage this actively to ensure that any potential problems are tackled head-on to provide the maximum benefits, such as significant extra employment and inward investment in the city, and minimum drawbacks for the people of Southampton."