Hilarious last-ditch attempt by the bookies to prevent a FOBT stake cut to £2 proves their desperation
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling responds to press coverage stating that gamblers would go underground or lose more money on pub slot machines, if reductions to FOBT stake levels proceed.
What do you get when you cross the CEO of William Hill with a sense of desperate urgency? Well, we found out in the Sunday Times business section, which carried the quite hilarious threat from Hill’s chief Philip Bowcock that if the stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) is reduced to £2 a spin, gamblers “will go underground. Or will they go on to pub machines where they will lose more money?”
Let’s take those ludicrous points in turn. Bowcock is arguing that illegal machines of stakes up to £100 a spin will be sold to illegal operators if bookies’ machines are capped at £2. Presumably the argument is that they’d be sold to underground gambling dens by one of the two FOBT suppliers, Inspired or SG Gaming, who would in turn lose their operating license for breaching the conditions.
So we can rule out the fear of underground gambling dens. Very few, if any, gamblers enter a betting shop for the first time to use FOBTs. They go to bet on racing or sports, and are then offered free credit or tournaments on the machines. The minimum bet on FOBT casino content is £1, and players tend to gamble what they can afford in the first instance. But, as the Campaign’s Matt Zarb-Cousin told TalkRadio, a significant proportion stake up beyond their means, whether to chase losses or because they’re desensitised to betting what they can afford. The maximum is £100, every 20 seconds, compared to machines in all other easily accessible venues capped at £2.
So Bowcock’s claim that gamblers would lose more in a pub is not backed up by the evidence. A study by Landman Economics reported by The Times found that the average user of a FOBT lost £192 over a three-month period, compared to £22 for machines capped at £2 a spin, and as Carolyn Harris and Iain Duncan Smith argued in a joint letter to The Times, there were 230,000 FOBT sessions in a single year that resulted in a loss of more than £1000.
As well as IDS, there is a growing chorus among the Conservative ranks backing £2, including Tom Tugenhadt, Nick Boles, and Sarah Wollaston who tweeted: “I will not be supporting any moves that allow high stakes FOBT to continue to destroy lives. The Treasury needs to look at the long term financial & personal cost of the catastrophic harms to individuals, families & society.”
Mail on Sunday commentator Peter Hitchens also backed drastic action, saying FOBTs are on the moral level of mugging grandmothers, and calling for them to be banned. Similarly, in his first column for The Sunday People, Keir Mudie said the bookies look set to lose the fight against a £2 stake.
Any intervention from the bookies now will be too little, too late. For many years, they have refused to accept that their anomalous machines, permitting high stakes casino content at three-spins a minute, have the capacity to induce or exacerbate much greater harm than conventional bookmaking.
The Campaign has argued before that Big Data is being cynically exploited by the bookies, targeting vulnerable consumers, and this week the issue was covered by The Guardian. While 43% of FOBT users are problem or at risk gamblers, contributing the vast majority of revenue, questions have to be asked about the product itself, and whether a light-touch approach to regulating bookmakers can have any efficacy given reducing harm is irreconcilable with their commercial interests. As the Campaign told the Guardian: “Big Data is being cynically exploited by the gambling industry to target vulnerable consumers. So the Gambling Commission’s trust in operators to use customer data for social responsibility purposes is naïve at best.”
However, GambleAware strangely think that if as much emphasis is placed by the bookies on social responsibility messaging as it is on targeting vulnerable consumers, this could somehow be justifiable. Its CEO Marc Etches said: “We hope all gambling companies put a similar level of commitment and resources behind promoting safer gambling and the help available at BeGambleAware.org as they do their own products.” But “hope” is not a responsible gambling strategy.
If we are to reduce, and aim to prevent, gambling related harm, then updated sensible controls need to be in place, as well as adequate safety support services.