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Catriona Stewart: Gambling damages society – so why the social acceptance?



Ms Coates’s pay day comes not long after a slew of stories about fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Brought in by Blair’s Labour government and relatively unchallenged by the Tory administration, these terminals allow punters to lose up to £300 a minute – £100 a spin, a spin every 20 seconds.

The Government proposes to cut the stakes on FOBTs from £100 to between £50 and £2 but the gambling lobby is powerful and, with about 34,000 FOBTs currently in operation in the UK generating around £1.4bn in profits every year for bookmakers, it’s doubtful the bookies will let them go without a fight.

Currently, only four such machines are allowed per shop but this simply leads to clustering, where bookies open several branches close together. Where do they do this? Usually deprived communities. Certainly, you won’t find a glut of bookmakers on Giffnock main street or in Milngavie town centre.

My local high street is replete with bookies. I remember my great uncle used to like a wee punt but it was as much about socialising with his mates and getting out the house as it was about winning. There seems no joy in the bookmakers I pass each day. Just grim clusters, mostly men, eyes fixed on machines and mouths closed to conversation.

I’ve seen the claim that limiting FOBTs is an attack on the working classes – just like the smacking ban, the smoking ban and minimum pricing. If only we had more of the working class in the media we might see descriptions of how members of the demographic have interests outside smoking, boozing, gambling and whacking their weans.

But the bookies are more prevalent in struggling areas, so it’s a creative way of the Treasury recouping benefit money, I suppose.

What seems most notable is the ubiquity of gambling and how normalised betting has become, particularly among a younger audience: nights out at the casino rather than pubs and clubs; mobile and internet gambling; advertising during sports matches; online and television advertising. My colleagues have Bingo Balls on a Friday afternoon. It’s a bit of fun and sees the winner take away about £50, give or take. The Lottery, of course, is ubiquitous.

The gambling industry has spent £1.4bn on advertising since 2012 while Ofcom research found 1.39m gambling ads ran in the UK last year, compared with 234,000 in 2007 when the sector was deregulated. Online casinos have doubled their marketing budgets over the past five years. Almost half of Premier League clubs are sponsored by betting companies. Betting adverts cannot be shown before the 9pm watershed – unless during live sporting events and so young football fans will be used to seeing gambling promoted to them by players and celebrities, surely a clear sign a social ill has become acceptable.

Last month, the Gambling Commission, a Government regulatory body, and the Advertising Standards Authority put their names to a letter sent to online gambling operators asking them to remove games promoted by characters such as Fluffy Favourites and Pirate Princess. Games such as these are free to play, presenting children with the risk of becoming hooked on them.

The Gambling Commission also said some 450,000 children aged between 11 and 15, across England and Wales, are gambling on a weekly basis.

A £1 punt on Bingo Balls is a world removed from losing your life’s savings in your lunch break – but both are betting. Gambling has become a mainstream part of our culture with a new, unchallenged respectability. As highlighted by the FOBT debate, the Government has a choice between protecting communities or business.

Will politicians do the latter? I wouldn’t put money on it.

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