Stop gambling with people’s lives
Published by The i paper (23rd December, 2019)
Denise Coates, founder of gambling firm Bet365, has hit the jackpot. She earned £1.3m every day last year, which is almost ten thousand times the average salary of her fellow British citizens. Her £323m pay package – revealed last week – is the biggest sum handed to a British boss, breaking the record she set the previous year when taking home a paltry £265m.
She deserves credit for entrepreneurial skill. It has made her a big winner from the betting explosion, exploiting technology that ensures gambling is permanently available on computers and phones. But bear in mind those millions pouring into her pocket are from ordinary people taking hopeful punts with her company. Many are having fun, enjoying a harmless flutter. But some are slowly wrecking their lives.
The National Health Service is opening a series of specialist units to help some of the losers – including, disturbingly, one for children. This decision to offer its first clinic for teenage gambling addicts was welcomed by Liz and Charlie Ritchie, whose son Jack started betting with his lunch money as ‘a bit of fun’ while still at school in Sheffield. Two years ago he killed himself in despair aged 24, having frittered away an inheritance and failed to control his compulsion for online wagers. ‘He was groomed by the gambling companies,’ said his mother.
Stewart Kenny is another entrepreneurial genius in this sector. As the savvy boss of Paddy Power, he helped transform bookies from backstreet operators offering bets on dogs and horses into a multi-billion pound global industry that permeates much of modern culture. This made him a wealthy man. Yet he admits to some regrets. For he has retrained in psychotherapy and now confesses he can see the carnage caused by gambling excesses.
‘I accept I am being wise after the event,’ he told me. ‘I must take my share of the blame. But I wish I had been more proactive to stop the easy accessibility and the amount of people being sucked into the most addictive forms of gambling. The industry always argues some people have addictive personalities and they should be stopped. But it is much more complex than that when experts suggest some new products are inherently addictive.’
His unusual honesty deserves immense credit. Deregulation more than a decade ago unshackled this corrosive industry just as it moved online and created new products to exploit human frailties. Tony Blair argued ‘there is no point in taking a position that says all gambling is wrong’. So he ripped up restrictions, unleashed advertising and made Britain the first country to permit online gambling. It was, after the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the most destructive legacy of his 13 years in office. A few operators, largely based offshore, have seen income surge. The government also benefited as its take from betting taxes doubled over the past decade.
But the wider cost of Blair’s deregulation grows clearer by the day as the curse of gambling compulsion shatters lives. The industry’s own regulator believes more than two million people in this country are either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction.
Yet watch any football match on television over this festive period and you will be assailed by celebrities joshing you to take a punt. More than half the teams in the top two tiers have gambling firm logos on their shirts, helping to hook fans into the betting habit. Blair claimed his reform would protect the young. But children as young as eight can recall betting advertisements, while a recent report suggested two-fifths of children aged between 11 and 16 gambled over the previous year.
We have also seen the insidious development of rapid-fire online casino games designed to drain cash, often with duplicitous offers of free bets to entice new players. Once signed up, people are targeted with texts and emails, making it harder to stop. Such tactics fostered a fivefold surge in online gambling spend over the past decade. Official data last year suggested there are 55,000 problem gamblers aged under 16 – figures that quadrupled in two years.
Most pernicious of all are Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, super fast fruit machines that have had their maximum stake belatedly cut from £100 to £2. As a director of Paddy Power, Kenny successfully lobbied Irish ministers not to follow Britain’s lead by letting in ‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ that he said was ‘particularly enticing to younger gamblers in disadvantaged areas.’ His letter, released under a Freedom of Information request, accused the British government of being ‘as addicted to the tax revenue [from the machines] as vulnerable customers are to losing money in them.’
Betting operators talk of ‘responsible gambling’ as they promote self-regulation and fling a few crumbs at charities trying to fix broken victims. But online gaming shares some of the most pernicious traits of social media – designed to lure new users, encourage them to spend a long time using products and then bombarding them with targeted enticements. A Swedish study this year indicated people hooked on gambling are 15 times more likely to kill themselves. Leading psychiatrists argue modern betting can be as addictive as psychoactive drugs.
Big chunks of the £14.5bn annual spend on gambling comes from a comparatively small number of troubled people, often concentrated in poorer parts of the country. Our new government needs to reinforce regulation to assist those snared in cruel grip of addiction, stop the suicides and protect disadvantaged communities. Kenny still believes gambling, for those in control, is a fun pastime. But he has a chilling warning for the industry he helped create: if it does not change ways rapidly, it will soon be seen like the tobacco trade as a toxic sector.
He is right. It is profiting from misery by gambling not just with other people’s money but with their lives.