Government should make FOBT stake decision based on evidence not spin from the bookmakers

Posted On: 
11th April 2018

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling asks questions about evidence used by stakeholders, including bookmakers, which was submitted to the DCMS consultation on stake levels. 

Defending the indefensible has been a tough gig for the bookies’ trade body, the ABB. Its relationship with facts has been practically non-existent, but how else would they be able to make ludicrous claims like “reducing the maximum stake would increase harm”.

Sometimes the ABB even pretend the Gambling Commission supports their bizarre inferences, despite providing no evidence to support it. Inferences such as “there is no relationship between FOBTs and problem gambling”. To make this claim, they repeatedly cite selectively from different research, often from other jurisdictions without disclosing its provenance, while distorting the findings and ignoring conclusions that don’t support their view. This is despite the four most recent, major population studies showing elevated levels of problem gambling for machines in betting shops.

But the ABB ignored this, instead citing a paper by True and Cheer in their submission to the government’s gambling review. The ABB claimed that this “major study published this year for the government of New Zealand found there was no evidence linking gambling machines to problem gambling and that despite the increase in gambling machines… problem gambling declined considerably”. 

They neglect to mention that the authors are neither independent nor academic researchers. Jarrod True is a lawyer who “provides advice internationally to over a third of New Zealand’s gaming machine trusts”. Tim Cheer is the CEO of Pub Charity, which relies on machine income. This paper wasn’t commissioned by the government of New Zealand, but by the industry to lobby government – and it doesn’t establish an absence of evidence linking machines to problem gambling, either.

The ABB also claimed in February that “research published by the Gambling Commission today reveals there is no relationship between gaming machines in bookmakers and problem gambling”. The Gambling Commission has made no such finding, and the data upon which the regulator based its advice contained no information from which a diagnosis of problem gambling could be made. The Gambling Commission should formally distance itself from the false claims made by a sector it’s supposed to be regulating, lest it risks being complicit in the bookies’ disinformation campaign.

The ABB also consistently – and disgracefully – attempts to marginalise problem gambling, peddling a narrative that it affects a “small minority” predicated on the problem gambling rate across the whole population being less than 1%. But that “small minority” is actually a significant proportion of FOBT users. The most recent Health Survey counted 11.5% of FOBT users as problem gamblers, and 43% are either addicted or at risk.

But the most bizarre claim the ABB made back in February was that reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs “could increase the risk of problem gambling” citing “a new study by university experts”. Despite this particular report not including any diagnostic analysis for problem gambling, the ABB claim that the study “found that any move to lower the maximum stake to £50 could ‘increase harm’.” At no point in the report do the authors state that “any move” to lower the maximum stake could “increase harm”. This is presumably why the ABB chose not to quote more than two words.

The authors, Forrest and McHale, actually note that the “ineffectiveness of the last change [a £50 threshold requiring permission to stake more per spin] does not necessarily imply that a further reduction would fail to mitigate harm”.

In fact, a comprehensive study in Australia on gambling machines found that stake reduction is the only structural modification that has any impact on reducing harm. This paper was quoted by former DCMS chief economist Dr Stephen Creigh-Tyte and John Lepper in 2005. “What Can Economics Tel Us About Machine Gambling?” stated: “...binding limitations on wagers can limit the maximum session losses suffered by punters. The effect tends to be greater the higher the prize and the larger the probability of winning and the lower the time taken by each game…. there was a large reduction on time played, number of bets, money lost and consumption of alcohol and tobacco among players of machines the stake of $1 compared with those who played machines with maximum stakes of $10.” 

If the government is making a decision on the basis of actual evidence rather than spin, the Campaign remains confident that £2 a spin will be considered the most appropriate level for betting shop machines, as it already is in arcades and bingo halls.