SALES of National Lottery scratch cards have reached 100 million in three weeks, exceeding all expectations of their popularity and prompting mounting concern that people are becoming addicted to them.
Already several people who have lost large amounts have contacted Gamblers Anonymous, the self-help group.
Psychologists, addiction help centres and church groups have urged that the cards, called Instants, should be banned because they fear people will become hooked, fritter away their earnings and fall into depression.
Dr Emmanuel Moran, a psychiatrist who runs the National Council on Gambling, says the cards' attraction is similar to that of roulette. "I am very concerned," he said. "Scratch cards have all the characteristics of hard gambling. They are well known to have in-built dangers. There are a large number of results where you almost win a large prize, which prompts you to buy another card. This is a well recognised technique known as a `heart stopper'."
The scratch cards, launched by the National Lottery organisers, Camelot, cost £1 each. Purchasers can win a cash prize by scratching a latex cover to reveal a cash sum. If three numbers match, they win that amount. Camelot says that the average sale is two cards, but newsagents and grocery shops report people buying handfuls at a time.
"We sell a lot of twos, threes, fours and fives," said Sailesh Patel, assistant manager at the Chelsea Food Fayre. "Some people buy 20 tickets. If they win they normally use the money to buy more. Last week we ran out."
Recently, one person who contacted Gamblers Anonymous fell into debt after buying 120 cards. A customer at the Bar du Muse wine bar, in Greenwich, south London, spends about £500 a week on Instants and the staff help him scratch them.
Many purchasers have been attracted by the odds on winning which are 5-1. But those odds are for winning any prize, and prizes range from £1 to £50,000. There is only a 480,000:1 chance of winning £1,000. The odds on winning the £50,000 jackpot are 2.4m:1.
Experts on gambling say that Instants are deliberately designed to keep people playing by offering small prizes. These small successes reinforce the habit and persuade people that they are lucky. As many scratch their cards while in the shop, they are inclined to buy another card to chase their losses.
Tranx-Release, a counselling group for addicts, said the easy availability of the cards enables compulsive buyers to hide their addiction. "It's not like a casino where everyone sees what you're doing," said Mick Morledge, chief counsellor. The UK Forum on Young People and Gambling fears many young people will become addicted as they are susceptible to Saatchi and Saatchi's high-profile advertising campaign which runs with the theme "Forget it All for an Instants".
In the United States scratch cards have been available for at least 20 years. "Every one of our lottery addicts started with scratch cards. There's no question that they are compulsive," said Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center, Maryland. "These little rewards that we call `intermittent reinforcement' are what make them so addictive."
Mr Peter Davis, director general of Oflot, the lottery regulator, said that he saw no evidence of a problem but would continue to monitor the situation and act if necessary.
Camelot denied that the cards are compulsive or a hard gamble, and says that in most cases they are "an impulse buy". Later this year it intends to introduce versions of the cards based on different themes, like sport and special events. These are planned to run alongside one another with various odds and prizes. This, said a lottery spokesman, is to keep people interested.
The Methodist church claims that scratch cards are far more dangerous than the weekly draw and should be scrapped. "It is clear that scratch cards are compulsive," said the reverend John Kennedy, spokesman for the Methodist church. "Big publicity and the promise of big winnings encourages people to play and lose, and play and lose. The pressure the Government is putting on people with low incomes to keep buying them is simply wicked."
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