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Gambling nearly took my life: betting terminals should have a £2 maximum stake – THEGUARDIAN.COM – FREE DEBT HELP SCOTLAND

‘The average fixed-odds betting terminal user loses £192 a month.’

Gambling nearly took my life: betting terminals should have a £2 maximum stake – THEGUARDIAN.COM – FREE DEBT HELP SCOTLAND

If the government were to legalise crack cocaine tomorrow, vendors would be sparse and its consumption would be tightly regulated. It wouldn’t be advertised on TV, either – and certainly not during live sporting events.

The only logic to legalising something highly addictive is that it would regulate its consumption to limit the harm to the user. So given we know that drug addiction is neurologically similar to gambling addiction, and that some gambling products are more addictive, and more harmful, than others, how have we got to a situation where fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) are available in what I view as lightly regulated betting shops, often staffed by a lone worker, which are permitted to open multiple outlets in the same high street?

It’s no exaggeration to call FOBTs “the crack cocaine of gambling”. If we had a gambling product classification, similar to that of drugs, FOBTs would be class A. The metrics by which this would be measured are stake, speed of play and game content. FOBTs permit stakes of up to £100, every 20 seconds, on casino games such as roulette – a highly addictive game of chance that had historically been confined to casinos, where it’s played at about one spin every two minutes.

But my first experience of playing roulette was in a betting shop, while underage. Back in 2006, when I first put money into a FOBT, it looked a fairly innocuous machine, like the ones you find in arcades as a child. You start betting what you can afford, maybe £1 or £2 a spin. During one session, on my way back from college, I found myself £30 up. There is nothing like the buzz of winning money, and I cashed out, only to return to the same shop the following weekend. I put £20 in to start with, and after having lost the first £10, I fed in another £10. It was winnings, I thought, so what’s the problem. I upped my stake, and after hundreds of spins of the digital roulette wheel in less than an hour, I had won £700.

The moment I left the betting shop with £700 cash, I could feel the adrenalin dissipate slowly from my body, leaving me with an urge to go back to the FOBT before I even got home. By this point, after a matter of weeks since my first bet, I had become addicted. But I didn’t realise I had a problem until about six months later, after having lost not just the £700 I won in the early days, but practically all of my wages from a part-time job. I oscillated between call-centre work and the bookies, often skipping college. Towards the end of my first year in college, when I was supposed to be revising for AS-level exams, I was selling all my possessions on eBay to feed my addiction.

I missed my grades spectacularly but somehow still got admitted to a university on the basis of what I was predicted. So off I went with a gambling addiction. Unfortunately, there was a betting shop right next to campus, so rather inevitably I found myself at this particular “crack house” pretty much every day. But suddenly I had access to a student loan, and overdrafts, which I maxed out multiple times over. A particularly bad day when I lost £2,500 – a combination of overdraft and loan – led to me coming very close to taking my own life. Were it not for an intervention from my parents I would have done so.

Like other addictions, gambling is an escape from the problems the gambling has created – a vicious circle. The delusion that you are one win away from solving these problems perpetuates the harmful behaviour. But preventing harm requires the implementation of public health measures that apply to the whole population, like plain packaging for tobacco and minimum pricing for alcohol.

In a gambling context, this would amount to reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs to £2 a spin, bringing bookies’ machines into line with those found in arcades and bingo halls. More than 230,000 FOBT sessions in one year resulted in losses to the individual of more than £1,000. Landman Economics found that only by reducing the maximum stake to £2 will the government eliminate large-scale losses of over £100 a session. It also found that the average FOBT user loses £192 a month, compared with the average user of machines already capped at £2 a spin losing £22.

In its submission to a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport review of FOBTs, the Gambling Commission has said that any stake above £30 a spin would be inappropriate, but that a reduction to £2 a spin would also be consistent with its advice. By refusing to plainly demand limiting bets to a £2 figure, it seems that the gambling watchdog has chickened out of decisive action. But this effectively gives the government free rein when it does decide to cut the maximum bet from its current £100, as planned. Hopefully, on the basis of evidence, it will hold its nerve and come to the right decision.

Matt Zarb-Cousin is the former spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn, and is now spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. He writes in a personal capacity

In the UK​, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at For help with gambling, contact Gamblers Anonymous

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