Roulette machines in high street bookmakers are blamed for creating a new generation of problem gamblers.
Only one in 20 gamblers play roulette and blackjack on so-called "fixed-odds betting terminals" (FOBT) installed in bookies, but they can hook players into frittering away cash day after day, according to a BBC investigation.
A Panorama documentary to be screened tonight spoke to three betting shop managers who said they believed FOBT machines could turn normal gamblers into addicts.
A former manager with 23 years' experience told the programme: "After FOBT machines were introduced to betting shops, the number of problem gamblers mushroomed."
When he set up a training programme to show his staff how to play the FOBT games, "there was a marked increase in staff gambling", he claimed.
He added: "Some, when caught, claimed they'd developed an addiction to roulette.
"They were provided with support and counselling to keep the problem internal."
FOBT machines account for up to 80 per cent of the turnover of individual bookmakers, but the Gambling Commission does not believe they need casino-style gaming licences because horseracing and football are still their "primary activity".
Three quarters of the British population enjoy a flutter, but for almost 1 per cent of the population – approximately 450,000 people – gambling is an addiction, according to the Panorama investigation.
Professor Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, who helped to found the national charity GamCare in 1997, said: "We know that there are over 200 Gamblers Anonymous groups. We know that there are 50,000 people ringing the GamCare helpline. And we know that's probably just the kind of tip of the iceberg."
The British gambling industry generates a profit of £5.6bn every year and voluntarily funds research into and treatment of problem gambling. But last year, those contributions amounted to 0.1 per cent of the industry's annual profits.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which has never used its power to force the industry to raise more funds, said funding for problem gambling was "sufficient". Amid a rise in the prevalence of sport betting and online gambling, however, some experts believe more resources are needed to tackle the problem.
Professor Jim Oxford, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, warned: "We know gambling can be addictive. Anybody can be affected by gambling. It begins in a small way and builds up to the point at which people can be totally preoccupied with it. It is a genuine mental health problem."
The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), which represents the major high street names, denied that there was any link between the machines and problem gambling.
ABB spokesman, Dirk Vennix, said: "There is no empirical evidence linking machines to addiction. We really care about this issue and make sure that the vulnerable are protected. More than 8 million customers use our shops safely and responsibly day in day out."
For almost 1 per cent of the UK population, about 450,000 people, gambling is an addiction
Case study: 'When my son died, I lost it and needed to escape'
When her baby son, Ethan, died seven years ago, Keelin Carroll, from Surrey, sought comfort in bingo slot machines.
When it was quiet in the house my mind would start whirring, and I couldn't cope with the emotions that came into my head. I felt I needed to escape," she said.
One of an increasing number of women addicted to gambling, Ms Carroll she would play bingo on Sunday afternoons and spend hours afterwards feeding coins into slot machines.
"When Ethan died I just felt completely lost," she told Panorama. "Within days I had been to the bank and taken out a loan of a few thousand pounds. I just needed to lose myself for a little while, to numb the pain.
"I couldn't cope. I did have a few times where I did break down and I was crying and I was really upset.
"It was visually obvious that I had issues and not one person ever came to me and said this is the help out there if you want to take it, it's there for you."
She eventually sought help for her addiction from GamCare and has not gambled for nearly 18 months. After a year of counselling – and with two more children – she feels she has regained control of her life.
"I'm fighting this addiction for me and for my children," she said. "My children are my world, and I want to set a good example to them. I think I'll be fighting this addiction for the rest of my life."
Mecca Bingo said thag it was unaware of Ms Carroll's "alleged gambling addiction" and strenuously denied it had ignored or exploited her problem.
- More about:
- Gambling And Lotteries