Christopher Snowdon is Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
People who work for think tanks want to change the world one step at a time, but we are generally realistic. Those of us in favour of individual responsibility and free markets realise that a single piece of research is not going to change the climate of opinion overnight. We know that there are stubborn and persistent myths that need to be debunked over a long period of time.
And so, when I wrote a short discussion paper about the relatively niche subject of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) three years ago I didn’t expect to change the minds of people who hate gambling. I wasn’t expecting to link arms with the Salvation Army or find common cause with the lads at Stop the FOBTs. But I did hope that, in its own small way, it might make people think twice before describing these machines as the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’. As I showed in that paper, the term was coined in the 1980s by Donald Trump (whatever happened to him?) to describe a video bingo game that he saw as a threat to his casino business.
Since then, virtually every form of gambling has been compared to crack cocaine by people who don’t like gambling. Scratch cards, horse-racing, casinos, lotteries, online gambling, slot machines, pokies – all of them have been described as the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ at one time or another, and now it is the turn of FOBTs. The claim has never had any evidence to support it. It is nothing more than an overwrought campaigner’s slogan and yet no newspaper story about FOBTs is complete without it, usually featuring in the headline.
Returning to the subject for an updated briefing paper, I see that nothing has changed. Evidence that FOBTs are more addictive than other forms of gambling is still conspicuous by its absence, and the ‘crack cocaine’ meme continues to be casually inserted into every article that mentions them.
It would be trivial to focus on one pejorative term were it not for the fact that the campaign against FOBTs is based on little else. Three years on, the claims about an FOBT-fuelled gambling epidemic look more fishy than ever. Rates of problem gambling remain at around 0.5 per cent of the population, just as they were when the first comprehensive survey was carried out in 1999. This is low by international standards.
FOBTs get 99 per cent of the media coverage when it comes to gambling and yet the amount spent on FOBTs represents just 13.6 per cent of Britain’s total gambling spend. We spend twice as much on both the national lottery and online gambling.
The much-discussed ‘proliferation’ of betting shops continues to be a myth. There are currently 8,809 bookies in the UK. This is the lowest total since 2003 and is half the number seen in the 1960s when the population was significantly smaller.
Contrast this with the media narrative which says that every town in Britain is riddled with betting shops sucking £46 billion out of the pockets of punters and creating an epidemic of problem gambling. (The £46 billion is another classic piece of misinformation, by the way. It is the amount gambled, not the amount spent. The amount spent (or ‘lost’ if you prefer) is just 3 per cent of that.)
I understand that gambling is not everybody’s cup of tea and I appreciate that compulsive gambling leads to problems for a small minority. I also appreciate that many people are more comfortable with traditional gambling, such a horse-racing, than with anything that involves electronic gizmos. Nevertheless, the moral panic about these particular machines is becoming tired. They are no longer the new kids on the block. They have been around for more than a decade and the predictions of doom have clearly not come to pass, just as earlier predictions about internet betting and gambling deregulation have come to nought.
FOBTs are one way for betting shops to keep pace with changing tastes in a digital world in which, whether you like it or not, horse-racing and dog-racing are in decline. If politicians try to wind back the clock to the days when betting shops were filled with old men gambling on greyhounds they will consign bookmaking to history. It will not stop people gambling and it will not stop some people becoming compulsive gamblers. It will merely push punters into the much less regulated, and often offshore, online universe. Regulation cannot afford to be anachronistic in a world in which people can place unlimited bets on their mobile phones. FOBTs might not be to everybody’s taste but they have a place in the modern industry and existing regulation and taxation is more than adequate, if not excessive, for a gambling product that is only available in licensed, adult-only establishments.
And please stop comparing them to crack cocaine.