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It took Tony Franklin just 59 minutes to squander £3,500 on high-speed, high-stakes gambling machines in his local Coral bookmakers. Losing the money was easy. Thirteen days before Christmas,...

It took Tony Franklin just 59 minutes to squander £3,500 on high-speed, high-stakes gambling machines in his local Coral bookmakers. Losing the money was easy.

Thirteen days before Christmas, he walked up to the counter, swiped his debit card and spent £500 picking the wrong numbers on electronic roulette. Eight minutes later he took out a further £1,000, which was immediately applied to the machine as credit. He burned through that in 39 minutes, and promptly spent another £1,000. Ten minutes later and he was back at the counter buying another £1,000 worth of credit.

“I was in a fog. It was me and the machine. I threw it all away,” Franklin said, fighting back tears. “All that money was supposed to pay back debts. It was for Christmas presents. For my son, my wife.” The 43-year-old had lost almost everything he had saved in months of being “clean”. “I don’t need to be told gambling ruins lives. It’s ruined mine several times.”

Tony Franklin, whose addiction to gambling has ruined his life ‘several times’

In person, Franklin appears a charming rogue with a gift for one-liners. He has been successful in business: as a salesman working on commission his biggest pay cheque was £13,000 in a month. He is now penniless and steeped in debt, having blown his and his family’s cash through compulsive gambling. Over two decades or so, he calculates he has lost about £1m.

With a junkie’s urges, the only way to feed his addiction was a series of petty scams. He began in the early 2000s by bouncing cheques, then graduated to running up tens of thousands of pounds in overdrafts. The explosion of bank lending and “pre-approved loans” in the late 90s enabled him to be, at one stage, jobless but with £100,000 in credit. Franklin’s most profitable sideline was making about “10 grand a month” by buying mobile phone contracts, paying the monthly line rentals and selling the handsets. Franklin said: “I was exploiting a loophole in the telecoms’ company marketing plans. The companies wanted customers and were basically paying you to sign up. They only woke up to it when the courier company tried delivering 500 phones to my house.” All the money he made went straight towards feeding his gambling habit.

Problem gambling like Franklin’s is now recognised as a health issue, especially given the rise in “hardcore” machine betting on the high street.

Bookmakers are permitted four fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which allow £100 to be laid on roulette wheels every 20 seconds, in every shop. There are now about 35,000 of these terminals in Britain. In December, industry-funded research revealed rates of problem gambling are as high as 23% among some machine players. This, experts noted, compared with 0.4% for all adults.

In April 2014, public health authorities on Merseyside were so concerned they recommended bookmakers should require anyone who wanted to bet on gaming machines to become “members” so that they could track their betting and prevent big losses. In a report, Liverpool Public Health Observatory revealed respondents to their survey said that they lost “time away from relationships, as well as their money, and [this] led to mistrust and arguments”.

The report found: “Problem gambling can lead to problems with sleep, due to anxiety, and has a ‘ripple’ effect, as one person’s gambling problems can impact upon a lot of people. Staff who worked with people who had problems with gambling reported that their families were at risk of anxiety and depression.”

Franklin said he has tried everything from abstinence to therapy to attending Gambler’s Anonymous. “I know I have to control my gambling, but we need medical help. This is an illness. Problem gamblers are sick and as with any illness I did not choose to be sick.”

While for some this line of argument is just a way of evading a gambler’s personal responsibility, many experts are coming to the same conclusion. In 2013, for the first time, the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognised gambling as an addiction on a par with drugs and alcohol.

Luke Clark, who left Cambridge University last September to head the University of British Columbia’s centre for gambling research in Canada, said: “Behaviour addictions have a distinguishing feature … in the case of gambling the pattern is that addicts all report debts – debts which interfere with their day-to-day functioning.”

Franklin’s gambling addiction began at 13, when he would steal from his parents to play fruit machines. He left home four years later after landing his family with “thousands of pounds of debts” by ordering school books and then returning them to the supplier for cash refunds to gamble. “Gambling has been a hugely painful part of my life. I have been homeless, living on the streets. It has had a huge impact on my family, my parents, my wife, my son. I lose control when I gamble. I lose perspective and often didn’t see the point in working when you could lose a month’s salary in an hour”.

Eventually, things got so bad that he left the country – determined to start afresh in eastern Europe with his wife. But even abroad, with a good job after seven months of going “cold turkey”, he blew €100,000 on gaming machines and internet and mobile phone gambling. He now works in Britain and his wife and five-year-old son remain abroad.

Although Franklin has gambled on every form of electronic betting, he is particularly concerned about FOBTs.

“Roulette is an addictive game. It should never be allowed to be sped up and then put on every high street,” he said. “The machines are everywhere. I used to travel with my job and as a result just spent all day in the bookmakers playing FOBTs.”

He said bookmakers should have a duty of care to identify and exclude problem gamblers.

The industry said it now has steps in place, with a code of conduct that requires staff to intervene to stop big losses and limit the time spent on the machines. However, when Franklin was on his way to a Christmas party in December, he “lost his senses and popped into the local Corals and nobody stopped me from playing the machine, even though I lost thousands”.

Campaigners say Franklin’s experiences reveal the code to be toothless – and instead ministers should act by cutting the stakes on the machines. Newham council in east London is calling for the maximum stake on the machines to be lowered from £100 to £2, and has gathered backing from a quarter of all local authorities in England.

Matt Zarb-Cousin, a spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, said: “The bookmakers have been trying to convince government that they can deal with problem gambling to stave off further regulation. But it would be frankly delusional to believe the training of staff to interact with customers is enough to address this issue. Limiting harm means limiting losses, so reducing the stakes on addictive products like fixed odds betting terminals is crucial.”

When contacted, the Association of British Bookmakers, the trade body which organised the code of conduct, said it did not want to comment. Coral said in a statement: “The case has been brought to our attention and we are investigating as a matter of urgency. If we have fallen short in either policies, practices or action of specific employees we will take action but we must investigate properly as a first step.”

Source: The Guardian