Cutting FOBT stakes must be just the start of gambling industry reform, say campaigners

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The gambling industry must do much more to protect consumers from harm, beyond cutting stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), campaigners have said.

The government ordered firms to slash the stakes £100 to £2 to put an end to the extreme losses problem gamblers suffered on the machines dubbed the “crack cocaine of gambling”.

But unlimited stakes are still available online and bets can be placed in a matter of seconds, through instantly accessible smartphone apps.

Marc Etches, chief executive of the safer gambling charity GambleAware, welcomed the news on FOBTs but said attention must also be paid to the online gambling which is growing at a rapid rate. 

Online gambling will soon account for half of all money wagered in the UK and is far more prevalent than betting on FOBTs. Just 1 per cent of adults gamble at a bookmakers while 18 per cent do so online.

Only on the internet are gamblers allowed to place a stake using a credit card rather than cash or debit card.

Etches says the very characteristics that make FOBTs so addictive and devastating also apply to online gambling.

“With mobile phones, online gambling is instantly accessible.

“For those people who have a problem controlling their gambling behaviour, accessibility, speed of play and the ability to lose a lot of money very quickly become particularly dangerous,” Etches says.

He says gambling is being normalised thanks to the rapid growth of advertising and promotion, particularly at or around sporting events. Nine out of 20 Premier League football clubs currently play with a gambling company logo emblazoned on their shirts. Half-time ads promoting betting firms are pervasive.

Etches doesn’t suggest gambling advertising should be banned but says we must think “very carefully about where and when it is advertised, and who is in that audience”.

“Undeniably, a lot of it is reaching children,” he says. 

Almost 400,000 children aged between 11 and 16 gamble each week and around 25,000 are problem gamblers, according to a survey by the industry’s regulator.

Football clubs have a particular responsibility to ensure they are not helping to promote gambling to children, he said.

“We have 11-year-olds self-reporting for problem gambling. That can’t be right,” says Etches.

Despite these alarming statistics and the increased prevalence of online gambling advertising, there is no publicly available data on how much the industry is spending to promote itself on the internet, Etches says. 

What is known is that gambling firms splashed £1.4bn on TV ads between 2012 and 2017. Online casinos doubled their marketing budgets in that time.

The Advertising Standards Authority is tasked with policing commercial content but it has no powers to fine companies who breach the rules and is funded by advertisers./p>

The ASA has upheld 112 complaints against gambling company ads in the last five years, while 268 have been “informally resolved”, meaning the firm in question took action after a complaint before the regulator made a ruling. 

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The sanction in most cases is to stop broadcasting or printing the advert. Only a handful of cases where a company has been found guilty of persistent rule breaking have resulted in a fine from the Gambling Commission.

It handed LeoVegas a £627,000 fine this month after the company sent ads to thousands of customers who had asked to bar themselves from gambling. SkyBet got a £1m fine for its own failures to protect vulnerable customers. 

But these examples are the exception.

The Gambling Commission does not have data on the effect on problem gambling of rapidly increasing amounts of advertising. It’s quarterly survey points to a 50 per cent rise in problem gambling rates between 2015 and 2018 but the Commission says its sample size is too small for the change to be statistically significant.

The last time it conducted comprehensive research on problem gambling was 2015, despite its role of “protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling”. 

Those figures suggest there are up to 600,000 people with a gambling problem in the UK – about the same as the number of people who are dependent on alcohol.

But, while half of people with alcohol problems are accessing treatment services or at least in touch with them, just 2 per cent of people with gambling problems are.

“The state must have more of an obligation to get more involved; and that’s not letting the industry off the hook,” says Etches. “I think the companies absolutely have to do more, not least towards treatment.”

The government announced on Wednesday that Public Health England is conducting a review into the harm caused by gambling. Etches is hopeful that this shows attitudes towards gambling are belatedly beginning to change.  

“Across the whole House of Commons you can see a recognition, at last, that gambling-related harm is a health issue. To actually have confirmation that work is being done in cooperation with Public Health England and the Department for Health and Social care is a really positive outcome.”

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