26 years later and it’s still being reigned in. The scars are yet to be formed, the wounds are open, and the lacerations requiring the most attention remain exposed to the elements.
On April 1st the UK Gambling Commission and the Advertising Standards Agency will push more legislation through protecting young people and children from the potential harm of gambling on social media, but after so much damage inflicted, plasters like these aren’t going to fix the broken limbs.
14 years ago was when New Labour’s infamous Gambling Act passed, and though the move at the time was met with controversy and has been heavily derided since, the legislation’s impact has undoubtedly been overstated.
Indeed, it was the National Lottery’s inception in 1993 that went about triggering the initial fracture. Even today the Lottery still doesn’t come under the same scrutiny as the bookmakers and casinos, but back in ‘93 the move to let the government’s new money-spinner advertise on TV and radio caused uproar within the gambling industry.
The Conservatives relented quickly, and in 1995 betting shops were permitted to display odds from their shop windows as well as open on Sunday’s. In 2001 the soon-to-be-dreaded fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) were introduced with no restriction leading to 30,000 being in place before the 2005 bill became a thing.
The Gambling Act though, whilst regulating online casinos, deregulated the high street and failed to take into account technological advances creating a proliferation of FOBTs across the country with the most heavily impoverished communities becoming littered with betting shops and not a lot else. Now in 2019, 11.5% of people who use FOBTs are registered as problem gamblers.
Tory austerity policy enacted since retaining government in 2010 and their persistent negligence to acknowledge the problem has helped as much as Harold Shipman helped his patients, but the widespread damage done by New Labour was unforgivable.
According to the UK Gambling Commission there are now 500,000 problem gamblers in the UK with 2 million at risk of heading the same way – 150,000 more than in 1999 – while over 100 of those have been hospitalised due to their “pathological” gambling addiction. That number in 2000 was less than 5.
Of course, no one wants to go back to prohibitionist days of the 1950’s. Gambling is part of the British culture and when practiced responsibly can be a great distraction from the labours of real life, but a middle ground needs to be found. Libertarian’s would argue that everyone should have their own choice to do what they want with their life, yet that’s a simplistic, utopian way of looking at a convoluted, complex problem.
There’s no doubting that marketing has the power to ingrain something into the human psyche, and by being bombarded with gambling adverts on TV, radio as well as online, it normalises something that can be devastatingly harmful.
Before the Gambling Act, gambling companies weren’t allowed to advertise on television and radio, now 95% of football matches feature at least one gambling advert and 80% of children 11 to 16 say they have seen gambling adverts on TV. This will change following the voluntary plan by bookmakers to ban pre-watershed adverts during live sporting events, however such adverts will only be banned from five minutes before kick-off until five minutes after the final whistle.
Then there’s the subject of football shirt sponsors. Until 2002 no English football club had ever been sponsored by a betting firm, now 17 of the 24 clubs in the Championship and nine of the 20 Premier League clubs are sponsored by bookmakers. That may increase when the watershed ban comes into effect too.
There have been calls from Labour and even the Church of England to sever ties with gambling companies (clubs in Italy have recently been ordered to), but there’s been no movement yet, and while this is all having a devastating effect on adults, it’s also having a huge impact on the younger members of our society too.
70,000 of children gamble every week in the UK while 55,000 of them have been classified as problem gamblers according to the UK Gambling Commission – a number that has quadrupled since 2017. When kids are watching their heroes adorning a shirt with Betway, Magical Vegas or Bet 365 on it, it’s bound to create a degree of intrigue.
The Gambling Commission have been slow x-ray the problem too. June 2018 was the first time in four years that they had issued a call to arms to bring those responsible for safeguarding children together. But the legislation going through on April 1st, as a result of the commitment set out last summer, seems inadequate.
Under the new rules gambling operators will “not be allowed to advertise in online spaces that are popular with children”, while companies also won’t be able to work with any social media influencer under the age of 25. This also comes off the back of a crackdown on “the use of particular colours, cartoons and comic book images, animals, child and youth-orientated references and names of slot games” which was sent out to firms in late 2017. Two mystifying guidelines that portrays teenagers as six-year-old children.
With only 35% of people in the United Kingdom now believing that gambling companies are “fair and can be trusted”, operators and the Gambling Commission need to strengthen their stance and look deeper.
Fines have increased over the last five years, especially since the former UKGC Chief Executive Sarah Harrison took over in 2015, but there’s still plenty of rope out there to haul back in and the UKGC’s steadfast refusal to do anything about BetBright’s disgraceful act is hardly going to help rebuild that trust either.
The lowering of the FOBTs stakes was a step in the right direction though, and the much-spoken about credit-card ban would be welcomed too, but the UKGC need to keep going.
There are already safety nets in place for problem gamblers, however more interactions between operators and users need to take place, while affordability tests and banking restrictions need to become a reality too.
Gambling by its very nature affects the most vulnerable people in society and though it can bring great joy and relief to many, the insidiousness lays just beneath the surface. Headline-grabbing press releases of banning of pre-watershed ads and preventing celebrities from working with gambling companies may get plenty of attention, yet they don’t heal the wound. The UKGC need to perform a surgical operation not write a simple prescription.