Why do we prop up an industry destroying lives across Britain?

The digital roulette offered on fixed odds betting terminals is gambling's crack cocaine

Share

As always when dawn breaks over this day, we turn to the parlour game of Fantasy Queen’s Speech. All regal orations have a strong element of fantasy, by painting a rosier picture of the legislative year ahead than the one that will come to pass. But the point of FQS is not to moan about the wishful thinking to which Her Majesty is condemned to give voice. It is to imagine what the old girl might say if a mischievous Black Rod spiked her water with a Mickey Finn truth serum.

This year, my preferred fantasy statement is as follows: “My Government will knowingly, deliberately and cynically add to my subjects’ sufferings, by colluding in the betting industry’s drive to increase the addiction to gambling.

On reflection, the sovereign may be in the dark on this one, and, if so, she is in good company. The ruthless targeting of potential problem gamblers through the proliferation of the electronic gaming devices known as fixed odds betting terminals is a national scandal. But since very few of us ever enter a bookmakers’, and since the bookies’ prey are primarily those who do not vote and have no voice, it is largely hidden in plain sight.

I should state, in the hope of pre-empting any squealing letters of complaint from the bookies and their friends at Westminster, that I am not a puritanical enemy of gambling. Like Derek Webb, a professional gambler who made a fortune from inventing casino games, and now spends part of it fighting the march of FOBTs via his Campaign For Fairer Gambling, I am the precise opposite.

From the moment my parents loosed me on the Brighton pier slots, at the age of six, I was lost, and spent every penny of pocket money (and the odd fiver nicked from a wallet or purse) on fruit machines. At 17, I altered the month of birth on a temporary passport to make me 18 so I could get into an Algarve casino. At least 23 and a half months of a two-year law course were spent in a north London Mecca, betting on the dogs and horses. The first month’s wages as a journalist were swept away by the croupier’s rake in Cannes. I have played in the World Series of Poker main event in Las Vegas, and spent an insane amount of time playing cards in home games and online. Until 2002, I never met a form of gambling I didn’t love.

Then the Blair government did something astoundingly crass. Possibly more through ignorance than avarice for the tax yield, and possibly not, it allowed high-street bookies to install machines simulating roulette (though they now feature all casino games and other amusements).

Writing about these armless bandits a few months after they first appeared, it was the safest of bets to predict they would cause colossal grief. An acquaintance had already fled the country to avoid the Russian mafiosi from whom he had borrowed £30,000 to feed the craving. Before he fled, I watched him playing the roulette machine incessantly in a William Hill in Bayswater. A changing cast of characters at the neighbouring FOBT included an Albanian who blew in minutes the £1,000 he had painstakingly saved for two years to take his kids to meet their grandparents in Tirana, and various old biddies rattling through their pensions.

This was inevitable. For centuries, roulette has obsessed and ruined the once wealthy. Here it was in a new, deadlier form aimed not at playboys on the Riviera, but at the penniless of grimy inner cities and sink estates. Where an effort is required to go to a casino for a spin of the wheel every five minutes, the game became available to passing trade on the high street with a spin producing an adrenaline surge and other psycho-chemical reactions every 15 seconds. The distinction is similar to the one between a recreational drug which the vast majority of users take occasionally and at low risk, such as cocaine, and a drug that is intensely, instantly addictive and designed to cause addiction, such as crack. Hence the now ritualistic description of these machines as gambling’s crack cocaine.

In the intervening decade, the scourge has spread. Today, a stroll down the high street suggests that every other new shop replacing a failed one is a bookmaker’s. The chains are expanding so quickly not to reduce unemployment (the machines, according to the Campaign For Fairer Gambling, kill two jobs for each they create), but because there is a limit of four per shop. With a maximum stake per spin of £100, FOBTs account for more than half the industry’s turnover, with estimates of the amount annually wagered ranging from £40bn to £46bn.

While statistics on the rise in addicts defy easy analysis, because the simultaneous growth in internet gaming also plays a part, the Gambling Commission’s 2010 national survey found that the number almost doubled to 450,000 since 2007. Just as the betting industry denies opening twice as many new shops in deprived areas as elsewhere for any more sinister reason than population density, it disputes that FOBTs are addictive. When it insists that there is “no empirical evidence” for their addictiveness, I was reminded of the tobacco industry’s long and categorical rejection of those fanciful medical claims about a link between smoking and lung cancer.

What the bookmakers are peddling is a toxic drug with a ferocious capacity to wreck lives. After the fashion of the dealer who sucks in new clients with a freebie line or crystal, they entice the vulnerable with garish window posters offering free plays under the guise of “competitions”. The Treasury, meanwhile, is content. Whether by design or not, with these machines disproportionately targeted at the poor, the £300m collected last year from the profits represents a peculiarly wicked regressive tax.

“I have got the most heart-rending letters and emails and calls that I’ve ever had in 30 years of being an MP,” said Harriet Harman of this plague, “just saying, ‘Please, do something about this. It’s ruined my life, it’s ruined my family, it’s really dangerous’.” So it is, and while the bookmaking industry exists to maximise profits however it legally may, a Government exists to minimise the sum of human misery where it can. By allowing the growth of high stakes FOBTs in return for tax revenues (which may not even cover the costs of increased crime, children taken into care and other attendant side effects), this one, like its predecessor, abrogates its duty and covers itself in shame.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star