Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) have long been in the crosshairs of anti-gambling campaigns, labelled as the “crack cocaine” of gambling machines for their option to gamble hard and fast with a loose limit allowing for big losses. If councils are successful in their latest protest this may all change very quickly, with Manchester City council among the backers suggesting a £2 limit should be imposed on the machines.
FOBTs account for a large proportion of business in betting shops. The easily accessible machines offer games like roulette and video poker, with money being inserted directly into the machine. This lack of human interaction makes it easier than ever for problem gamblers to get carried away and the time it takes to spin the wheel in roulette also adds to the problem; gamblers can flush away £100 in as little as 20 seconds.
There has been a number of high profile cases where gamblers have lost immense amounts of money which has brought a lot of negative press to the machines and led to the “crack cocaine” label they are now lumbered with. One such incident came to light when James Petherick’s story was published; highlighting the fact that he had blown a quarter of a million pounds over a ten-year spell of being addicted to FOBTs.
Teddy Sagi, the man behind the vast commercialism of the machines, has come under close personal scrutiny for his involvement. A Daily Mail investigation went as far as exposing the criminal links within his family and painted the picture of a remorseless man with little concern for anything other than making money.
Similarly, many campaigners attack the fact that FOBTs are often targeted towards low income, high risk areas. The concern is that the people losing the most are not affluent high rollers but working class individuals that become hooked on the possibility of a quick fix and become problem gamblers as a result. This is a point that was emphasised by Adrian Parkinson of The Campaign for Fairer Gambling.
“There are more than twice as many betting shops in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived” said Parkinson. “With Fixed Odds Betting Terminals causing real social harm in those communities it is no wonder that councils across the country are mobilising against the Government’s inaction on this issue.”
It is this reasoning that has led to calls for a £2 limit, rather than £100, in an effort to curb the amount of money that is injected into the machines.
The idea has gained serious traction. East London’s Newham Council is leading the movement but has the backing of 80 councils as it looks to put the proposal forward. It is not a straightforward case of money either, with the councils suggesting that the increase in FOBTs has led to violence and abuse of staff as well as illegal activities in the form of money laundering.
Should the move go through, it will have major ramifications financially for bookmakers. FOBTs currently account for half the income of physical betting shops, with an astonishing £46 billion wagered on them last year. The country is now packed out with more than 34,000 of the machines showing just how quickly the fad has multiplied, and how easy it has become for casual gamblers to access the machines. 7% of bets on FOBTs fall within the £50-£100 bracket, meaning that a limit would result in huge amounts of profit being wiped out overnight for bookmakers.
This is not the first attempt at culling what is becoming a real issue for some gamblers. With political pressure mounting on the government to take action, a new code of conduct was entered in March of this year. The Association of British Bookmakers brought in new legislation that ensures customers are able to enter their own limitations and receive an on-screen warning when they have gambled £250. However, many have attacked these implementations as being too soft to create any serious deterrent. Self-exclusion has proven to be difficult to enforce in the past, with frequent anti-poker campaigned Senator Nick Xenophon claiming “self-exclusion is a joke. It doesn’t work and the industry knows it.”
Earlier this year the government declared that as of 2015 it would be increasing the games duty to 25%, but again it has been claimed that this is simply not effective enough. With the issue moving to the forefront of the media Labour have taken the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and curry favour with campaigners, claiming that they will aim to reduce the availability of machines and encourage councils to take matters into their own hands.
“Local authorities must be empowered to deal with the clustering of betting shops and FOBTs,” said shadowing gaming minister Clive Efford MP. “Labour will ensure councils can reduce the number of, or remove, FOBTs in betting shops if local people perceive a problem in their area.”
FOBTs have certainly become the focus of a hugely negative campaign that doesn’t look set to go away any time soon. As long as they continue to be successful, particularly in more deprived areas, councils and anti-gambling groups will continue to make their voices heard in favour of ridding the area of the machines. Essentially, however, it is easy to argue that the gamblers themselves are the ones responsible for their decisions and it is this fundamental fact that creates a huge stumbling block for campaigners. With Labour weighing in and suggesting that they themselves would implement changes the pressure is on the current government to make changes, but the fierce resistance they would face from leading bookmakers suggests that no quick decision will be reached and this is a debate that will rumble on for some time.