UK Bookmakers Introduce New Compulsory Limits on Betting Machines

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Posted: November 12, 2014

Updated: June 4, 2017

The new code of conduct adopted by British bookmakers sets limits on the amount of money spent, but not on the number of sessions.

In an attempt to ease the public’s concern over the negative impact of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), betting companies operating in the UK have announced new “compulsory limits” on gambling machines. The measures are to be introduced “voluntarily” by betting shop owners across the country.

The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) said “customers will be compelled to make a choice”, recent gambling news has reported. “Mandatory messaging” will appear on the machine’s screen, asking players whether they want to set time or cash limits on their gambling sessions. If they choose not to set such limits, more messages and warnings will pop up to occasionally interrupt their game.

Choosing the lesser evil

The ABB’s 2013 Code of Conduct aims to minimize the harmful effects of FOBTs, dubbed the “crack cocaine of gambling” due to their addictive nature. The new policy comes to replace the 2004 Code of Practice, which saw FOBTs forced through as part of the 2005 British gambling law. Looking back, many politicians now believe the betting machines should have been dealt with back then.

Harriet Harman MP stated that letting them spread “was a mistake and has ruined people’s lives”, while David Blunkett MP claimed he had “never been a supporter of plans to encourage bookies to install high-stakes gambling machines, which run the risk of leading thousands into a life of ‘misery’.”

The latest changes to the code of conduct have been brought on by a proposal of the UK Gambling Commission, which threatened to introduce stricter mandatory limits for those who use these machines. The regulator was considering making players commit to setting a limit on the time they spend in front of the machine, before each session.

Knowing that this would truly discourage gamblers from playing too much, affecting their most profitable business, betting companies have chosen to “voluntarily” introduce written warnings, in order to avoid the harsh measures proposed by the gambling regulator.

The difference is the only thing that’s compulsory under their set of measures is showing a message on the screen.

Do voluntary limits really work?

Anti-gambling campaigners are, of course, skeptical of the new code of conduct. Even with the mandatory limit settings proposed by the UK Gambling Commission, there is no guarantee that gamblers wouldn’t simply continue playing once they’re over their limit. But the measures proposed by bookies don’t even go that far; they make the limit optional too.

Meanwhile, ABB management claims “voluntary limits are the best way to ensure players stay in control”. The association’s chief executive officer said this was “the right way forward”, but has offered no evidence to back that up.

Soon after the code was published, the Campaign for Fairer Gambling wrote: “A similar stake and time restriction measure was introduced following the 2004 Code of Practice, which was not mandatory but initiated by the player out of choice, who had to select the option if desired. Monitoring of this showed zero take up by players during the trial period and was consequently removed”.

According to the Financial Times, who looked into the data behind current measures, out of 4 million weekly gambling sessions monitored over a period of 15 weeks, less than 0.3% of sessions have been played with time or cash limits. And thing get worse as this was just at the beginning of the study, because by the end of the monitoring period that percentage had dropped to 0.04%.

In other words, out of four million FOBT sessions monitored at the beginning of the research, these limits were voluntarily applied to just 10,700 of them. By the final week, that number had dropped to 1,500. While the whole idea was to reduce the amount of money users lose, players who did choose to impose limits on how much they spend set them at GBP350 to GBP450 per session.

Efficient prevention or PR strategy?

Before the voluntary code of conduct was introduced, Ladbrokes had already conducted an internal research to get an idea of how the new strategy would affect business. The report was leaked to the Guardian and suggested that “92% of sessions on FOBTs would not receive any warnings under the new code because the playing time would not exceed 30 minutes of uninterrupted betting.”

The report also showed that it would take hours of play before the GBP250 limit on player losses would be reached, triggering a pop-up warning message and a visit from a staff member. According to Ladbrokes, players lose an average of GBP93 in a 60-minute session. That’s well below the proposed limit. Newspapers wrote that similar machines in Norway cap losses at GBP40 per session.

So how efficient is this whole voluntary limit strategy? So far, all reports point at the same conclusion: that the betting industry’s new code of conduct is nothing but a PR strategy designed to avoid stricter – but truly efficient – measures against FOBTs.

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