Problem gambling experts have criticised rival factions of the betting industry for waging a “selfish” war of words to protect their own interests amid the threat of tighter regulation.
The UK’s leading gambling charity also warned that a “narrow” focus on controversial fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), potentially ignoring online betting and fruit machines in pubs, amusement arcades and casinos, risks undermining efforts to help addicts.
The government is conducting a review of gaming machines that industry figures fear will lead to tighter curbs on betting machines and reduced profits.
The review has seen amusement arcades and casinos go on the offensive against bookmakers by highlighting the addictive nature of FOBTs, which make up more than half of bookies’ revenues at about £1.7bn last year.
The machines have been publicly reviled as the “crack cocaine of gambling”, a phrase thought to have been coined by President Donald Trump when he was running casinos to draw attention to video game bingo, which posed a threat to his business.
GambleAware chief executive Marc Etches said that while attention should be paid to FOBTs, which allow punters to stake £100 every 20 seconds, ignoring other types of gambling was a “disservice” to problem gamblers.
“There’s a particular focus on machines in bookmakers but I’ve observed the industry for the best part of two decades and in my experience it’s always been the same,” he said.
“When the National Lottery was introduced, elements of the industry didn’t care for that.
“When there was discussion of expanding casinos, there were businesses within the industry that campaigned against it. Such is the case around machines in bookmakers.”
He added that it was “problematic” that a cross-party group of MPs, which has recommended slashing the maximum FOBT stake to £2, is backed by firms that profit from rival forms of gambling.
Groups that fund the MPs’ efforts include amusement arcade body Bacta, pub chain JD Wetherspoon, which operates fruit machines, and Hippodrome casinos.
The Association of British Bookmakers recently fought back against criticism of FOBTs, latching on to research published by industry regulator the Gambling Commission.
Using data compiled from real betting sessions, the commission found there was “no consistent evidence that particular gambling activities are predictive of problem gambling”.
The ABB also pointed to figures suggesting that on average gamblers lost more money and spent more time on amusement arcade-style games.
ABB chief executive Malcolm George warned of the danger that “adult gaming centres and other forms of gambling escape proper scrutiny.”
“The arcade industry and elements within the casino industry, which are commercial competitors of the bookmakers, have unfairly used FOBTs as the whipping boy for far too long when it comes to problem gambling.
“In particular arcades, with vastly more machines, need to wake up to their responsibility to help problem gamblers, in the same way as the bookmaking industry has.”
Bacta accuses the ABB of cherry-picking data that suits its own argument, focusing on averages rather than the extreme losses that can affect higher-stakes FOBT players.
The two sides have also drawn opposing conclusions about whether studies suggest that reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs would stem players’ losses.
Etches said the back-and-forth between competing firms in the same industry suggested that they were losing sight of the need to address problem gambling.
“The industry needs to think more carefully about that bigger reputational issue and recognise that those who are thoughtful can see through some of this selfish behaviour,” he said.
“There are a lot of people who have a problem so we need to have a better discourse. A narrow focus that gets very shouty between campaign groups puts people off having a more grown-up more mature discussion.”
The row over the role that FOBTs play in addiction reflects the limited amount of hard evidence on problem gambling.
One of the most comprehensive studies, by research group NatCen, looked at whether people who hold loyalty cards with bookmakers changed their behaviour over time, in an attempt to show whether FOBTs coincide with a slide into addiction.
It found a correlation between the use of machines in bookmakers and a descent into problem gambling, with the unemployed and ethnic minority groups worst affected.
But NatCen associate research director Heather Wardle, who sits on the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, is wary of drawing too many conclusions from this.
“It shows an association, we just don’t know what’s driving that association. In all likelihood there are some people for whom the machines are causing them difficulties.
“Others have immense problems with all types of gambling and happen to play machines.”
She points out that similar research has not been done into amusement arcades, fruit machines or online betting, so it is difficult to compare the risk of addiction.
This raises the possibility that while FOBTs do pose a risk, a blinkered focus on them could allow other forms of betting – whether it’s amusement arcades or online poker – to escape scrutiny.
Like Etches, Wardle is concerned by the tendency of the warring factions to highlight data that suits their cause.
“There is a lot of energy expended on different interest groups trying to make a case that one activity versus another is the most harmful thing,” she said.
“You end up with a polarised debate that misses the complexity of what’s causing people harm and what you do about it.
“I can perfectly understand why different stakeholders do that but it’s not particularly helpful. I’d like to see people combine their energies into really thinking about how we help people and stop the horrendous problems they experience.”