This personal and brave investigation by a woman whose partner killed himself after becoming addicted to gambling showed how our high streets have become gaming arcades of misery
Go to any high street in the country – apart from perhaps the really posh ones, in very affluent places – and you’ll see a lot of betting shops. Often, you’ll find more than one branch of the same variety – two Ladbrokes, say – within spitting distance. The reason for that is FOBTs – fixed-odds betting terminals. Only four machines are allowed in any one branch. You want eight? You have to open another shop. And you do want eight, because FOBTs bring the industry £1.7bn a year. And so what if it’s £1.7bn from the poor, the sick and the vulnerable? Or that Britain’s high streets are being turned into gaming arcades of misery?
Wendy Bendel’s investigation – Panorama: Why Are Gambling Machines Addictive? (BBC1) – was a personal and a brave one. Two years ago, her partner, Lee, killed himself, at the age of 36. In a confessional letter to her, he singled out these high-stakes, high-frequency FOBTs as the core of his addiction. Now, she’s trying to understand what it is that has made her a single mum.
Former Paddy Power boss Fintan Drury tells Wendy he has had second thoughts and now admits that FOBTs are addictive and dangerous. He says no one in the industry has done enough to personalise the moral challenge, thought about the what-if: “What if it was one of my children who was addicted? How would I feel about how we promote our offering?”
Wendy meets a Cambridge statistician to look into the numbers. The return, the percentage of the money staked that is paid out, is 97.3%. That might not sound so bad; it’s certainly less bad than other forms of gambling. But, explains Professor David Spiegelhalter, it’s the relatively high chance of a win that helps make the machines so addictive. And the stakes are so high, the games so quick, that you can lose huge amounts very quickly. And even if you did have the money and the time to achieve that 97.3%, it’s still a loss; the machine and the bookmaker will get you in the end. Prof David points out the cunning techniques they use to give you hope that you might be able to beat the system, such as showing numbers that have come up frequently before – as if that has any effect on what will happen in the future.
Wendy meets Tony Franklin, whose life, like Lee’s, was taken over – at the expense of friendships, relationships, work, everything – and who says that new on-screen warnings and rules governing maximum bets will do little to discourage people like him and Lee.
Tony takes part in a little experiment. He’s given a fictional £1,000 to spend on a simulated FOBT, then popped into an MRI scanner. When he starts playing, his brain’s habit centres immediately light up and become overactivated (and his toes twitch, too, although I’m not sure of the relevance of that). And not just when he wins – he gets a fix every time he plays, and that can be every 20 seconds with a FOBT. “Gambling addiction is not a failure of will,” explains Professor David Nutt, the brain man. “It is a brain disorder that is preyed upon by the gambling industry. Once you become addicted, it’s very, very hard to stop, because you have changed your brain. Addiction is a brain that has changed to become entrained to the desires of the gambling.”
I hope the gambling industry – Paddy, Fred, William and the rest of them – watch Wendy’s Panorama and then take a good, hard look at themselves. No one currently working in the industry took part in the programme. The Association of British Bookmakers, the trade organisation for the betting shop industry, did issue a few statements: “The average loss of a FOBT is £6.75.” “FOBTs have been present on the high street for over 15 years, yet there has been no evidence of an increase in problem gambling over that time.” But no one was prepared to come on camera, show their face, defend FOBTs. Probably because they are indefensible.
Why is the government not acting? Well, clearly they should, and they probably will have to do something about it at some point, because something so reprehensible cannot continue for ever. In the meantime, though, they’re getting £400m a year out of FOBTs in betting duty themselves, so what’s the hurry? It’s one of the scandals of the century.
Source: The Guardian