The gambling industry is exploiting vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been warned.
Addiction support organisations have raised concerns that gambling firms have increased their marketing budget to target people stuck at home during the lockdown.
Alex Bunting from Addiction NI was giving evidence at yesterday's Stormont health committee when he revealed the worrying development.
And he called on politicians to look at ways to prevent gambling firms from "exploiting" gambling addicts during the pandemic.
"We ran a campaign about three weeks ago highlighting the impact and risks associated with gambling," he said. "The biggest concern we had is the increased levels of investment from these companies and how they were able to target people in lockdown.
"There is no doubt when we come out of this there will be definitely some increase in online gambling problems given the companies have invested so heavily in marketing strategies."
Anne-Marie McClure from Start360, a leading provider of support services to young people, adult offenders, and families across Northern Ireland, endorsed the comments made by Mr Bunting. She said her organisation has also seen similar evidence of exploitation of vulnerable people by gambling companies during the Covid-19 crisis.
The health committee also heard concerns about a rise in the use of illegal prescription drugs, such as diazepam and morphine, during the lockdown.
Eoin Ryan from Simon Community NI said: "Our service users are taking them in fairly considerable and large amounts," he said. "There is a significant increase in incidents relating to aggression as a result, sometimes, unfortunately we are forced into having to close beds and sometimes people are arrested as a result."
Mr Ryan said the organisation has asked for the tablets that are being found on its premises to be analysed locally. He said they are currently being sent to Wales, which slows down the speed at which information is being gathered about illegal drugs that are in circulation. Mr Ryan said such information is crucial as it enables them to warn service users of the dangers of drugs circulating.
The team of addiction experts also raised concerns about waiting times for access to Northern Ireland's opioid substitute programme. They said between 30 and 35 people in Belfast have been identified as requiring access to the programme but only two people are admitted onto the course each week.
It also emerged a pilot scheme to offer a nasal spray form of naloxone has been put on hold as a result of the pandemic. Nyxoid is a single dose nasal spray for the emergency treatment of known or suspected cases of an overdose and can be administered in medical and non-medical settings.