Terence Blacker: Why help people ruin their lives?

After this MPs' report, bookmakers must hardly be able to believe their luck

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If you fancy a flutter, you can get five to one against Boris Johnson being the next Conservative leader. A knighthood for Danny Boyle comes in at 5/4 while, should you be feeling more adventurous, you can get 25/1 on the possibility of Usain Bolt falling over during the 100 metres final.

Everything is good for a bet nowadays, and the other day – quietly, while the Olympics were taking centre-stage – life became even rosier for Britain's vastly wealthy gambling industry. Launching the Commons culture committee's report into the 2005 Gambling Act, its chair John Whittingdale declared that "the 'reluctantly permissive' tone of gambling legislation of the last 50 years now looks outdated".

Apparently ignoring statistics which show a rapid annual increase in problem gambling, the committee suggested a series of measures which will make the British more addicted than ever. In High Street betting shops, the current limit of four slot machines, often described as "the crack cocaine of gambling", was thought to be too restrictive and should be increased to 20 per shop.

Why? Because the market demands it. Bookmakers are the only businesses making money in town centres, and clusters of them have been appearing as other shops fold. It would make more business sense, the committee believes, if there are even larger betting shops, offering more gambling opportunities.

As is traditional, the report expressed the usual bogus concern about problem gambling, particularly among the young. There should be a public information campaign, it proposed with breezy hypocrisy.

For the past five years, bookies and casino operators have been able to promote gambling in jolly, family-friendly promotions as an innocent leisure activity, a computer game with prizes. They must hardly be able to believe their luck that a group of MPs is encouraging them to put even more brightly coloured machines where shoppers and the young can reach them.

The argument that casinos and betting shops provide a safe environment for responsible gambling, unlike online gaming, is utterly unconvincing. A recent study in Australia, a world leader in this area, has shown that four out of five problem gamblers were addicted to gaming machines. Online gambling was a minor problem in comparison.

It seems we've learnt nothing during the recession. An obsession with profit – even what many would regard as tainted profit – is allowed to cause misery and social harm. According to the latest Betting Gambling Prevalence Survey, published last month, seven million people are now "at risk". Also at risk, incidentally, are future surveys into gambling addiction. Government funding for them has been cut.

terblacker@aol.com

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