Adam Bradford | Opinion
On Tuesday, the long-awaited report into the gambling machines known as fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) and social responsibility was released by the government.
In 2014, my father David, an accountant, was sent to prison for fraud. He had stolen £50,000 from his employers to fund his gambling addiction. He kept his secret from the family and only wanted to do his best to keep his financial demons from us – he thought gambling was his escape route.
Sadly, his gambling offline was quickly complemented by online gambling. Machines in betting shops were not enough for him. He would spend upwards of £200 a day trying to work his way out of a sorry financial hole. So much so that, as a family, we only knew about his conviction for fraud when he was incarcerated, through local news reports.
Tuesday’s review released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport suggested stakes could be reduced on FOBTs to as low as £2 per spin, or as high as £50 per spin. This seems like a very wide boundary and not in step with the overwhelming evidence of the harm these machines can cause. At present, you can spend £100 every 20 seconds on these machines – that could represent a monthly mortgage payment in just over one minute. My dad fell into the trap of these high-stakes bets online and offline.
He was then lured online through advertisements that he found exciting and thrilling. Promises of free bets, instant credits and matchback guarantees (where the company will match what you deposit in a betting account), he says, made him think he could win a fortune. You might call him a fool; I do sometimes. But he was addicted. The problem with the government’s review is that it is narrow in scope. According to the charity GambleAware, 50% of all gambling is now conducted online. Its report from August this year also showed that young men who are unemployed were most at risk from developing a gambling problem through the internet. I have had countless social media adverts targeted at me online because I’ve been talking about gambling. Actually, I’ve been talking about gambling addiction. I have seen how the industry uses these ads, which are open to the public to entice young people who are not of gambling age into games with fascinating cartoons. The government should put its foot down and have these enticements stopped.
Websites bombarded my dad with adverts while he was in jail. I saw his email account receive almost 10,000 adverts for gambling in the eight months he was behind bars. When we picked up his mobile phone, it had received more than 50 text messages, which were costing £5 a time to receive, enticing him to come back. “We miss you – here’s £25 to come back to us!” said one text. I simply couldn’t believe it. I called one company and it refused to stop sending the messages, despite knowing the circumstances. It continued to charge my dad until his phone was cut off. I felt morally bankrupt just witnessing it all.
There was a 600% rise in gambling adverts between 2007 and 2014, according to research by Ofcom. I have no doubt that their pervasiveness, links to football games and heavy sponsorship of sports matches will encourage a new generation of gamblers, once FOBTs are no longer the gambling machines of choice. This is where the government has been short-sighted. It has assessed actual harm rather than potential for harm in its report, and has taken a long time to come up with this toothless recommendation.
Another startling hole in this report is the lack of sincere consideration of the range of treatment and rehabilitation options available to those who have a problem with gambling. University of Cambridge research has revealed that gambling activity triggers endorphins in the brain in the same way as a drug addiction. So why is gambling addiction not treated as a public health issue?
One NHS problem-gambling clinic in the country is not enough for the hundreds of thousands of people who have a problem and cannot get adequate support. This problem extends to families and those close to the addicts, too. My family had no options for support when this gambling crisis hit us besides speaking to our GP, who offered to put us on an 18-month waiting list for counselling support.
The 12-week consultation period following this report will allow the industry to have a think about where its priorities lie – it’s likely to be with its profits and shareholders. When will vulnerable people and their families be put first?
• Adam Bradford is a social entrepreneur and campaigner for social and humanitarian issues
Source: The Guardian