“What’s all the fuss about fixed odds betting terminals?” some people ask. It’s not uncommon to hear people say things like, “Well no one forces them to play.”
Others campaign fiercely to call for the machines to be banned completely or at least be very heavily regulated. This website gives a background to the some of the debates and controversies. The site’s Facebook account is a useful archive of recent items from research, the media and other sources.
If you haven’t heard of fixed odds betting terminals (or FOBTs) and are unaware of the issues you won’t be alone, despite massive media coverage in recent years. Bottom line claims that the machines found in high street bookmakers are addictive, unethical and dangerous pass under the radar probably for most people. After all, there are hundred of issues that people do not know or care about: humanitarian crises, wars, refugee displacement, famines; in the UK, poverty, homelessness, inadequate mental health services, misery caused by austerity and universal credit, women’s pension right – the list goes on.
This post focuses on just a few aspects of the FOBT debate and suggests reasons why it is an important social and political issue.
Fixed odds betting terminals are not betting machines at all. They are gambling machines. The most popular ‘game’ is roulette and each spin is unconnected to other spins. The fact that the machines allow £100 stakes every 20 seconds is one of the major causes of concern. An other is that the design of the machines, and the speed of play is itself the key factor in making them addictive.
Among those to speak out against them in the last week are the generally right wing ‘think tank, Res Publica and the conservative-leaning columnist Melanie Phillips who describes them as ‘wicked’. This is significant because generally conservative attitudes include a strong emphasis on personal responsibility, business freedom and minimal state intervention.
There are those outside the betting industry who consider the storms of anger against FOBTs as coming from no more than ‘middle class do-gooders’ who are ‘jumping on a bandwagon’. Typical of these commentaors are the ‘libertarians’ Brendan O’Neill and Chrisopher Snowdon. There is also a strong narrative from the industry and its supporters that the campaign against FOBTs is the result of commercial competitors seeking to damage their rivals. The campaign ‘Stop the FOBTs’ is led by a millionaire who has made his fortune in gambling industries, and he is often the target of attack.
The ‘debate’ often appears as little more than a slanging match. Headlines and soundbites manifest polarised standpoints and drown out any more thoughtful discussion. There is, though, a lesser noticed side to the issue which is very significant. There are people who genuinely wonder what the ‘fuss’ is about. Often gamblers or betters themselves, or in recovery, they argue that so much attention to FOBTs is pointless since gambling problems have always existed and always will, that a gambling addiction is totally independent of any particular method of gambling, that people will always find a way to become addicted even if FOBTs were completely removed. Some of them point out too that exclusive focus on FOBTs diverts attention from much broader, serious and deep-rooted structural developments in gambling and betting industries.
And they are right in most of what they say. Except that nobody involved in campaigning against FOBTs believes that successful outcomes will remove gambling problems in general. There are many campaigners who are ‘ordinary’ individuals who have been badly hurt, sometimes ruined, sometimes on the verge of suicide, who bet and gambled normally until they were introduced to the machines, whose addictions to FOBTs is very specific. They bet and gambled normally until they were introduced to the machines. Becoming familiar with research to back them up, they point to evidence that the machines have addictive qualities, are dangerous, and deserve their popular epithet as ‘the crack cocaine’ of gambling. Such ‘hard gambling’, they argue, should be in casinos, not on the high street.
Succeeding in restricting the supply of cheap, high strength alcohol will not make a significant reduction in problem drinking. But it will be a statement. Similarly, the attention to FOBTs is the focus of general concerns about developments in gambling and betting, the weekly increasing markets, the television advertising, and most of all the alarming dangers of online gambling. The latter, conducted on home digital devices such as smartphones, reflects almost precisely the most dangerous aspects of addictive betting shop machines, it is claimed. The same fast speed stakes, the same features no coupled with enticements of ‘free bets’, and as a Sunday Times front page recently highlighted, a potential targeting of children.
As we await the Government’s triennial review on gambling when it is expected that action of some sort will be taken on FOBTs, perhaps no more than reducing the maximum stake to £20 or £30 (campaigners have demanded £2), it’s important to remember that in addition to addressing the harms of FOBTs, beneath this are much bigger stakes.