Life

Lifestyle meddling: the ‘crack cocaine’ of politics

Fixed-odds betting terminals are a minor problem compared with the authoritarianism of modern politicians.

A new spectre is stalking Britain’s high streets: the fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT). Labour politicians and local councils are increasingly concerned about the growing prevalence of these high-stake, hi-tech gambling machines, which can be found in almost every betting shop in the country. The terminals are widely regarded as a blight on working-class communities, with Liverpool Council earlier this year voting to ban what its critics call ‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ and Labour narrowly losing a vote in parliament last week to cut the machines’ maximum stake from £100 to £2.

The figures around FOBTs - casino-style machines where punters can theoretically stake up to £300 a minute on games such as roulette and computer-generated horse-racing - certainly seem eye-watering. Since the introduction of FOBTs in 2001, their usage has soared annually, with Britons now apparently spending £46 billion a year on them. Their popularity is the main driving force behind the much-noted recession-bucking ubiquity of betting shops on the high street, with Britain’s leading bookmakers (such as William Hill, Ladbrokes, BetFred & GalaCoral) now deriving almost 50 per cent of their profits from them. Stories abound of addicted punters blowing astronomical sums on FOBTs – accompanied by references to the UK’s soaring rates of gambling addiction - and the use of such terminals has been associated with money-laundering and encouraging underage gambling, among other problems.

Yet, inevitably, on closer inspection the figures paint a different picture. That the total profit from these machines is less than £1.5 billion (not inconsiderable, of course) should indicate that the bookies are not the only winners here: the machines have a pay-out rate of 97 per cent (considerably better odds than the low-stake fruit machines Labour seems to favour). In an Institute of Economic Affairs report published earlier this year, Christopher Snowdon observed that while such machines are therefore considerably more attractive to gamblers, the growth in popularity of FOBTs is due to a decline in more traditional (and riskier) over-the-counter forms of gambling, rather than any mysteriously addictive power in the machines themselves. The betting industry’s total yield (stakes minus winnings) has actually fallen in recent years.

Yet, nonetheless, the seemingly widespread view that these machines are the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ is a powerful one. Critics charge that they are specially designed to appeal to ‘problem gamblers’ with their promise of easy returns for big bets, and encourage particularly irresponsible behaviour through the mechanistic ease of being able to feed through huge sums of money quickly without having to face the social stigma of handing the money over to another person (an example of ‘smoothing the ride’). Indeed, one of the most prominent campaigners against FOBTs, Derek Webb from Fairer Gambling, made a fortune through designing similar casino games.

The problem, however, is that gambling addiction as a concept – and what constitutes a ‘problem gambler’ – is hotly disputed even among addiction specialists. The British Gambling Prevalence Survey in 2010 gives a high-end estimate that gambling addiction could extend to 0.9 per cent of the population. Admittedly, that would represent an enormous leap from 0.4 per cent in 2007, but it is an estimate that the authors themselves urged ‘caution’ over given the enormous number of variables. It also found that 8.8 per cent of players of FOBTs could be classed as ‘problem gamblers’.

While there’s no disputing that these machines can pose serious problems for those with compulsive issues with gambling, it would seem that the comparison to highly addictive (and lethal) crack cocaine is highly exaggerated. Little wonder that critics have had to stretch the comparison further by linking FOBTs to actual crack cocaine, as demonstrated by the recent claims that such machines represent a major conduit for money-laundering for drug dealers, who (we might presume) clearly have considerably better luck at playing the odds than the rest of us.

While there may be nothing new in a bit of moral posturing against the old-fashioned vice of gambling, the weird obsession with the machines themselves by gambling’s contemporary political opponents has a very modern ring to it. For Labour politicians, it seems to represent an easy political opportunity to reconnect with their working-class supporters, who perceive their communities as being overrun by betting shops. Yet although there has been a small increase in the national total of bookies – 4.5 per cent since 2000 – it is still historically low, with fewer shops now than in the mid-Nineties. The main difference is that since 2007 bookies have moved from the side-street to the high street, a move made possible partly by gambling’s increasing respectability, but largely by the collapse of the retail sector. As Snowdon observes, what has driven this seeming proliferation are the current regulations that place a limit of four FOBTs per shop. Removing this limit would not cause the amount gambled to change significantly, but it would result in a lot of shops closing down – and, of course, the jobs that go with them.

It is a curious kind of inverse Luddism that leads political leaders to seek to help deprived communities by smashing the machines that are actually bringing them jobs, but it is depressingly typical of today’s politicians’ paternalistic attitudes to those they seek to represent. Whether it is viewing the poor as frittering their money away through either fecklessness or helplessness, this weird obsession with the almost supernatural power of technology to stupefy and compel says a lot more about today’s prevalent dismissal of free will and our ability to take responsibility for our actions.

If anyone has an addiction here, it is the politicians, not the punters. While fixed-odds betting machines may not quite be the crack cocaine of gambling, Labour has once again shown that it can’t kick the authoritarian habit when it comes to the wicked pleasures of the masses. Labour may have lost the vote last week, but you can bet that this won’t be the last we’ll hear of it.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

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