Reducing gambling harm

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Derek Webb, founder and funder of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling and Stop the FOBTs responds to a recent PR Week UK article.

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On January 12, PR Week UK talked to Malcolm George, CEO of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), about his mission to ‘clean up gambling’s image’ under the title ‘A lack of quality in the debate; Is high-street betting misunderstood?’

“High-street betting” does not accurately encompass high-street gaming, which is the activity of slots machines in a variety of premises and casinos games on B2 machines in betting shops, commonly known as FOBTs. Whilst FOBT stands for ‘fixed odds betting terminal’ games such as roulette is gaming not betting.

The name originated with the suppliers and bookmakers because gaming machines in betting shops offering roulette would have been illegal. The false notion that gamblers were betting on an event outside the shop, the random number generated result on an intranet server, was the alleged justification.

If bookmakers had been regulated under the Gaming Board prior to the 2005 Gambling Act these machines would never have been introduced. A gift to the Minister at DCMS at that time was the option to reduce the maximum stake on FOBTs, currently at £100 per spin, in the event there was evidence of harm. DCMS is now conducting a consultation whereby there will be a reduction to £50 or lower, with one of the options being £2; the primary objective of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

Other sectors offering high-street machine gaming, such as bingo halls, arcades, pubs, and clubs have been commercially disadvantaged as the maximum stake in those premises is £2 or lower. Naturally, many in these sectors are opposed to FOBTs, believing that they are also detrimental to the public perception of gambling.

The 2005 Act came into force in 2007 with three licensing objectives: prevention of harm to the young and vulnerable, no association with crime, and fair and open gambling. The Gambling Commission survey into public perception shows a decrease in those agreeing that gambling is ‘conducted fairly and can be trusted’ from 49% in 2008 to 34% in 2016. Clearly, the ABB mission to clean up the image of gambling is not working. This is despite bookmaker funding of the Senet Group, behind the tagline “When the fun stops – stop.”

Following a complaint on a Senet Group ad in The Week magazine, which made claims about the effectiveness of their message, the ASA ruled against the Senet Group. However, it continues to offer the same non-evidence based claims in non-advertising content.

In contrast to the ABB, the Campaign wants to clean up gambling itself, not just the image. Mr George quotes entire population statistics but does not admit that the latest Health Survey showed that 43% of FOBT gamblers are either problem or at-risk gamblers. There have only been two Health Surveys using the current methodology, which showed an increase in problem gamblers of 50% from 2012 to 2015.

When it comes to understanding gambling, Mr George claims there is ignorance on the part of non-gamblers and those who only gamble on the lottery. Looking at the ABB staff though, including Mr George, none of them have a gambling background.

The ABB has had a poor PR response to the Campaign. Private Eye was able to publish a letter to Editors by lawyers Schillings which insisted that the ABB be approached regarding any stories, but even now they are refusing to go on broadcasts, such as a recent BBC Westminster Hour broadcast. Additionally, the ABB has been quoting from a KMPG report, but which they refused to make available to Parliamentarians.

Whilst the Campaign has focused on FOBTs, we also oppose current adverts, which are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority regarding contravention of consumer protection law. Lord Chadlington is one of many Parliamentarians who have spoken out against TV gambling ads, correctly wanting to reduce harm to the young and vulnerable. Cleaning up gambling will ultimately have the additional benefits of a degree of cleaning up of advertising, PR and lobbying practices.

With a maximum stake of £2 being in the Labour manifesto, and with the bookies making Labour favourite to win the next election, it is only a matter of time before this is achieved. We are confident though that Tracey Crouch at DCMS will pay more attention to unbiased evidence, rather than a secret commercial report, and announce a £2 maximum within a couple of months.

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