ambling

Camelot, as operators of the National Lottery, have been ordered to crack down on retailers who sell lottery tickets and scratch cards to under-age children. The limit is 16, but kids of 12 to 15 have been buying scratch cards, it seems. Tch! tch! Whatever next! Girlie mags? Cooking sherry? The kids ought to know better. And they would, too, if every teenager's education including learning something about gambling. That is: what odds are and how they work, what bookmakers do, and so on.

I have always thought that some basic information about gambling in our society should be included in children's general education, on the same principle that schools offer some sort of teaching about sex. As things are, youngsters' first experience of gambling, via a betting shop or, nowadays, on the lottery, are likely to be completely uninformed. Instead, children are egged on by go-go television programmes showing the lottery draw, beamed out (with government approval) every Saturday night.

Publicity in the media focuses entirely on the rewards - how would you spend the money if you won the jackpot? - and not at all on the risks - what happens if you go on and on and on, gambling and losing? Explaining what gambling is all about should be the concern of any sensible parent. In our open, "deregulated" society, youngsters have a choice of betting on bingo, horse and dog racing, football or casinos, according to taste. And a good thing too, in my opinion. Gambling is a basic human instinct, and a fun part of life.

Gambling, however, needs individual self-control as well as official regulation. If children were taught something about the theory of probability along with their maths, wouldn't they be much better prepared for their first encounter with commercial gambling in real life? - just as an understanding of contraception is a sensible preparation for sex.

It is illogical to blame Camelot for the incidence of compulsive gambling. Retailers who sell scratch cards to under-age kids should, of course, be dealt with. But that is not the point. What did the Old Tory and New Labour governments think was going to happen when they allowed scratch cards to go on sale in tens of thousands of retail outlets? What are they doing to help people who get into trouble?

If anyone is open to the charge of compulsive gambling, it is surely the so-called Department of Culture itself, pushing people to play the lottery, without the health warnings mandatory in cigarette advertising. Spending pounds 750m of the people's money on the Dome, without our say-so, is the biggest gamble of all. And that's official.

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