Low stakes are bad news for the bookmakers – but good for society
The government’s promise to slash the maximum stake for fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to just £2 is both welcome and long overdue. Matt Hancock, the digital, culture, media and sport secretary, was right to describe the UK’s 33,000 machines as a “social blight” preying on some of the most vulnerable in society.
A bit of fun? A little flutter? Hardly, when users can wager £100 every 20 seconds in the grip of an anxious, joyless compulsion. The government’s evidence is damning: in England, 13.6% of players of such machines are problem gamblers – the highest rate for any major gambling activity. Players are disproportionately likely to live in areas of high deprivation. And those who are unemployed are more likely to most often stake £100 than any other socioeconomic group. The buzz of gambling depends on uncertainty, but these machines have ensured two things: huge profits for the high street bookmakers that house them, and misery for a significant number of their users – and those gamblers’ families. In a single year, there were more than 233,000 cases of individual gamblers losing more than £1,000.
Bookmakers and their supporters claimed that these devices provided social benefits – jobs – while denying that they cause social damage. They portrayed gambling addiction as both an anomaly and an individual weakness. Yet former addicts have powerfully described how they were enticed (one even speaks of “entrapment”) into non-stop play. An IPPR report two years ago suggested problem gambling was costing the UK up to £1.2bn a year, mostly through its impact on the health service and the criminal justice and welfare systems. So “responsible gambling” must mean managing the behaviour not just of individual users but also of the industry.
FOBTs are the most pernicious aspect, but not the only problem. High street bookmakers have warned that users will turn to “the FOBT in your pocket”: gambling apps with few limits. Technology does make greater controls available: users have to sign up, and can be more easily tracked and monitored. The government has promised stronger age verification rules, and proposals that would limit spending prior to affordability checks. The national online selfexclusion scheme Gamstop, still under development, will also be crucial. But a close watch must be kept.
This is all the more essential as gambling is normalised, including through the wall-to-wall TV adverts surrounding sports programming. Britain should follow Australia’s lead in banning gambling adverts around live sporting events, but even that is not enough while firms can plaster their names across football shirts and grounds. Vague pledges to enhance protections around advertising, and to run a responsible gambling campaign, are unlikely to offset the collective impact, particularly on young people. The Gambling Commission says that about 25,000
11- to 16-year-olds are already problem gamblers.
And more than one in 10 have tried “skins” betting – betting using in-game items, some of which can be converted to money. All this must be addressed.
It is possible that yesterday’s decision on FOBTs could prod the sector into curbing its excesses, recognising that a failure to regulate itself will bring fresh pressure and, ultimately, further action by the government. It seems more likely that – as for its customers – the lure of a big payout may overcome rational judgment. The government is right to make it clear that “responsible gambling” is a matter for the industry, not just individuals. If the firms will not shape up, they must be forced to do so.