Report details addictiveness of virtual roulette games

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The Independent Online

Pressure is mounting on the Government to impose restrictions on the virtual roulette machines that have delivered massive profits for bookmakers, after evidence they are a leading cause of problem gambling.

Pressure is mounting on the Government to impose restrictions on the virtual roulette machines that have delivered massive profits for bookmakers, after evidence they are a leading cause of problem gambling.

Calls by concerned gamblers seeking help over their use of the machines, known as fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), rocketed last year, according to a report published yesterday by Gamcare, the gambling counselling service.

More than one in five first-time callers to Gamcare in 2004 who gave details of their gambling addiction cited FOBTs as their problem. This is a sharp increase on the number in 2003, when only one in 12 first-time callers who identified gambling habits said FOBTs were the root of the troubles.

There are about 20,000 machines in betting shops across the country and they are of huge importance to bookmakers. On average they rake in £500 a week from FOBTs and the terminals are worth about £520m a year to the industry. Recent figures from William Hill showed FOBTs accounted for nearly half the profits in its betting shops. In Stanley Leisure, they accounted for 82 per cent of profits in betting shops for the six months to the end of October.

Gamcare's report showed when it comes to face-to-face counselling, FOBTs have become the second most common addiction, overtaking traditional fruit machines for the first time. Some 28 per cent of people receiving counselling from Gamcare said FOBTs were their main source of gambling - double that in 2003.

The Gamcare statistics contrast with a report paid for by the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) last year, which found no link between the machines and problem gambling.

Jill Davidson, Gamcare's chief executive, said yesterday: "We are the only agency that collects data from problem gamblers. What we are seeing is a rise in the number of people who use FOBTs." She called for "properly independent" research in to the impact of FOBTs.

Gamcare's report is being read by the Government, which has said FOBTs are "still on probation". It could cut the number of machines if evidence links them to gambling abuse.

The betting industry defended its record of social responsibility, saying the rise in calls was caused by bookmakers promoting Gamcare's helpline in betting shops. Gamcare leaflets and posters have been installed next to the machines.

Russ Philips, the ABB's deputy chief executive, said: "There is now such high visibility and awareness of Gamcare and its helpline to our customers that it is no surprise that there have been more calls."

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