Low stakes are bad news for the book­mak­ers – but good for so­ci­ety

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

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.

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