Playing with fire: peril of Britain's obsession with gambling

Posted on Thursday 1st May 2014

The government has this week announced increased powers for local authorities to refuse new licences for betting shops and impose extra controls on machine gambling. The background to this is concern about the so-called Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in betting shops. Unlike slot or fruit machines, where the maximum stake per play is £2, FOBTs allow the playing of casino-type games such as roulette, and the maximum stake is £100. They have rapidly become the single most profitable form of British gambling. All types of gambling carry the potential for addiction to some degree but not all forms of gambling are equally addictive. Gambling machines are thought to be among the more addictive because of the speed of play, the ‘random reinforcement’ pay-out schedule which is particularly habit forming, the prospect of a jackpot win encouraged by frequent smaller wins (really ‘losses disguised as wins’) and frequent ‘near wins’, plus machine design features which enhance the sights and sounds associated with winning or which encourage the ‘illusion of control’. The dangerousness of gambling machines has been mitigated in Britain by keeping stakes low. But FOBTs slipped in through a loophole in the law about ten years ago and there is now considerable evidence of the harm they are causing to gamblers and their families and communities, particularly in more deprived areas. 

The government is under increasing pressure to do something about them and the betting shop industry is on the defensive. The response of the Association of British Bookmakers has been to produce a Code of Conduct, which allows players to set spending and time limits and gives an alert and a 30-second time-out if a limit is reached. This is weak and unlikely to have much impact. Most importantly, it leaves in place, unaltered in all essential respects, these fast, high-stake, highly addictive machines. The necessary action would be far stronger. Among the options are: the maximum stake allowed per play should be reduced from the current £100 to £2, which is the standard maximum for other kinds of gambling machine; the removal of FOBTs from high-street betting shops altogether, confining them to casinos; giving local authorities the powers – which they currently lack – to control gambling on their high streets, including the power to vote to make an area an ‘FOBT-free zone’; and/or ‘mandatory pre-commitment’, whereby a player would be required (not just invited) to set a personal spending limit at the outset of play, and would be excluded from playing for a longer period if that limit was reached. 

Opportunities for gambling in Britain have increased very considerably in the last 20 years and were given further encouragement with the passing of the liberalising 2005 Gambling Act and the passing of the government lead on gambling from the Home Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with the Department of Health playing a negligible role. The latest British Gambling Prevalence Survey, carried out in 2009–10, found that between one-third and half a million British adults experienced a gambling problem in the previous 12 months, which represents a sizeable public health problem similar in magnitude to the problem of the misuse of Class A drugs. It also found that, although most of the population is not in favour of prohibiting gambling, attitudes are generally quite negative towards gambling in all sections of the population. 

What particularly motivated me to set up the Gambling Watch UK website is the need for a public space for critical reflection and comment on the growth of gambling in Britain. Criticism of the vigorous promotion of gambling by those who have a financial interest in promoting it, and of the government which is failing to show necessary caution in its support for the gambling industry, can be mounted on the grounds that gambling produces harmful consequences (the consequentialist argument) and on the grounds that gambling, particularly in certain forms, and its prominent advertising – for example, on television before 9.00pm – is not in keeping with values most people wish to support (the values-based argument). It is difficult to find the space to present such views and to have them listened to respectfully as part of the national debate we should be having. This is partly because there is no organisation speaking on the subject of gambling which is independent of government or the gambling providing industry. Particularly concerning from a university perspective, the main source of research funds is voluntary donations by the gambling industry and no way has yet been found to make the disbursement of those funds properly independent of the industry. Meanwhile we have a situation in which individuals and organisations with special knowledge and expertise, who might speak out against the harmful expansion of gambling, have in effect been silenced because of their links with the industry. We also badly need a national programme of treatment for problem gambling ensuring that there are services in all areas for the treatment of those with gambling problems and for their families. 

Jim Orford
Emeritus Professor of Clinical & Community Psychology, University of Birmingham