The most cynical sign I know hangs in my local betting shop. It reads, “When the fun stops, stop.” The sign is sponsored by a consortium of William Hill, Ladbrokes Coral and Paddy Power, and is meant to imply their “awareness” of gambling addiction. What it really means is: when the fun stops, profit starts. It reminds me of the doctors who used to appear before congressional committees pleading that cigarettes were good for your health.
The government’s reduction to £2 of the maximum £100 stake in fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) is welcome, if shockingly overdue. It represents a rare and emphatic rebellion by ministers against the awesome power over government of commercial lobbying. Gambling addiction is a specific and savage curse, mostly on the poorest section of the community. There are an estimated 430,000 people who consider themselves addicts, and 2.3 million who admit they are “at risk”. Almost half of those who use the machines admit to being addicted. Some surveys put this proportion as high as 80%. Under the late Tessa Jowell’s bizarre 2005 Gambling Act, the old one-armed bandits were upgraded to become gambling’s “crack cocaine”. Jowell promised they would not lead to “a British Las Vegas”. They have.
The only retort from the gambling industry is that the change will close hundreds of betting shops, “threaten 21,000 jobs” and cost the government £400m in tax revenue. It stresses how much it spends from its £13bn a year in profit to warn about “responsible gambling”. Yet the best Betfred’s Mark Stebbings could do today was to accuse the government of “playing politics with people’s jobs”. That surely is better than playing profits with people’s lives. These are exactly the wails that we heard from the tobacco companies as they fought against curbs on nicotine.
In truth, the measure is a mere slap on the wrist for an industry that is now rampant online. Here is where the secret addict can plunge the depths of despair, and where the most at-risk group are 18- to 30-year-olds. Here is where, when the fun stops, addiction takes hold. It tends to be hidden, until its consequences are unleashed on often unsuspecting families. The online industry has turned Britain’s colony of Gibraltar into gambling’s narco-economy. A phenomenal one-third of the entire global gaming industry is estimated to emanate from massive servers buried under Gibraltar’s celebrated rock. Here they can accrue profit, blessedly free of UK taxes other than remote gaming duty. It is a stain on Britain’s name.
What you need to know about FOBTs
Fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) are machines, found largely in bookmakers and betting shops, that allow customers to stake up to £100 every 20 seconds on digital versions of games such as roulette.
The UK has 33,611 FOBTs, each of which take more than £53,000 from gamblers per year.
Critics of FOBTs say they are particularly addictive, allow gamblers to rack up huge losses within a few hours, and are concentrated in deprived areas. They have also been linked to money laundering.
The hope must now be that the government can start to address the online problem. Much of Britain’s gambling industry is so offshore as to lose some of its political clout. If you employ few Britons, you can hardly threaten unemployment or loss of taxes. The hundreds of thousands of Britons who must be claiming social benefits through gambling addiction may be hidden from the fat cats of Gibraltar who put them there. But the cost to society must be in the billions.
I am a libertarian who would normally object to the state preventing people doing what gives them pleasure. But a sign of civilisation is that it protects individuals from cynical exploitation by others, and the wider community from consequent harm. Such protection need not mean prohibition. It can mean discouragement through regulation. “Nudge economics” is an acknowledged weapon of social policy.
There can be no doubt that curbs on smoking, rightly short of prohibition, have slashed consumption and made public spaces more tolerable for all. The new sugar tax – long held at bay by lobbyists – is finally reducing the addictive sugar content of soft drinks. Gambling machines are clearly a menace whose harm spills over into families and the community. One of the most alarming sights I know is a Las Vegas FOBT hall, with rows of people punching machines in zombie-like rhythm, clearly fixated. These machines are far worse than, for instance, betting on sport or the lottery in that they are programmed to induce addiction. Hints at possibly imminent winnings are like
wraps of cocaine, suggesting the next snort will be even better than the last.
John Stuart Mill’s doctrine of liberty held that: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” So long as others are not harmed, said Mill, we should be beyond the reach of society and can do as we please. Nothing is that simple. The boundary between pleasure and addiction that is harmful to others is the hardest boundary for government to police. Alcoholism hovers over social drinking, cancer over cigarettes, obesity over fast food and bankruptcy over a mild flutter. The border is no easier to detect between the odd spliff and the path to Narcotics Anonymous.
All we know is that the British state’s policing of these boundaries lacks any rationale. It is dictated by prejudice, corporate lobbying and political hypocrisy. Even in the hypocrisy, governments have been random. They decline to use nudge taxes seriously to discourage drunkenness or obesity, as if our bodies were indeed our personal property – free for others to exploit. Yet governments are savage towards such taboos as drug use or assisted suicide, while all forms of health and safety have become ruling obsessions of the nanny state.
There can be no argument that, where a vested interest is clearly causing harm to large numbers of people for its private profit, the logic is for intervention. But liberty demands that reform customarily be to regulate rather than prohibit. That is the message of these gambling changes. Next the principle should be extended to Britain’s even vaster drugs economy, where prohibition is clearly counterproductive and regulation even more desperately needed.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist