Bookmakers say they’ve come up with new measures to protect gamblers from the potential harms of betting, but critics are taking them with a pinch of salt.
Over the past year, British bookmakers have faced a lot of criticism from anti-gambling groups campaigning against gambling machines. Fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which allow players to lose large amounts of money in just a few minutes, have been the main target.
As the conflict was escalating, with campaigners demanding strict measures to limit the number of machines and to lower their maximum stake, bookmakers took initiative to manage the impending crisis. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they designed their own set of measures to limit the harmful effects of gambling, while at the same time making sure that their business is not affected.
Alerts to bring back players to reality
Although they were meant to repair the betting industry’s negative image, these efforts might not be convincing enough. Critics say they are nothing but a halfhearted attempt that proves bookmakers are not serious about tackling problem gambling.
So what is the big change that’s supposed to stop players from gambling away their savings in one single trip to the betting shop?
According to local gambling news, starting January punters will have to press a button before they start playing, at which point the machine will ask them whether they want to set time and money limits or not. If they answer “no”, the machine will give an automated alert after 30 minutes, informing players that they’ve been playing for half an hour. Reaching GBP 250 in losses will trigger a similar alert.
Experts say the machines can be very “addictive”, because games are played at high speed and high stakes. This is how FOBTs came to be known as the “crack cocaine of gambling”. The alerts were designed to interrupt the game, to pull users out of their gambling “trance” and snap them back to reality by showing them how long they’ve been playing or how much they’ve lost.
Betting code of conduct
The plan did not become urgent until rumors emerged that the Government was going to take matters into its own hands and tighten British gambling laws to curb betting machines.
It wasn’t until word got out that players would be required to set up accounts or inform staff if they want to spend more than GBP 50 in one session that betting companies suddenly appeared concerned with the issue of gambling addiction.
After that, UK bookmakers set up a voluntary code of conduct in response to the political pressure and growing concern about the harmful effects of FOBTs. Employees received training on how to spot problem gamblers. They were instructed to “walk the shop floor” and engage with them, talking about how they can avoid using the machines for too long or spending too much.
The Campaign for Fairer Gambling, a movement that quickly became the betting industry’s number 1 enemy, did not welcome these changes. Bookmakers were “paying nothing more than lip service” to the issue of gambling addiction, campaigners said, adding that the code is simply not working.
Not a valid solution
Independent research based on bookmakers’ own data revealed that the voluntary code of conduct hasn’t helped much. About 4 million sessions were monitored over a period of 15 weeks, but at the beginning of the study less than 0.3% of punters opted to impose a spending limit on their play time. By the end of the 15 week-period, that percentage had dropped to 0.04%.
Adrian Parkinson of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling said it was all “conclusive evidence that these measures are not successful in helping socially responsible gambling or deterring problem gambling.”
While the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) said those who did set time or cash limits stopped playing after the warning, Nottingham Trent University gambling expert Mark Griffiths, who came up with the code of conduct applied by betting companies, admitted that the take-up was “extremely low”. He suggested that bookmakers rethink their strategy.
However, the number of punters excluding themselves from betting machines increased by 35%. Staff has also engaged more with customers, so it’s a step in the right direction, the ABB argued. But bookmakers still oppose the idea of making limits mandatory, as the UK Gambling Commission suggested.
“The limit-setting as we propose is the right way forward,” ABB chief executive Dirk Vennix told reporters.
Bookmakers are clearly going through a critical period. Next month, the findings of an independent research commissioned by the government will be published, revealing new information on the links between betting terminals and problem gambling. The study will most likely shape the country’s policies on betting, as political parties prepare for general elections.