28 Apr 2014

Fixed odds betting terminals – addictive or ‘harmless’ fun?

On Wednesday the government will may make another effort to “scrape the barnacles off the boat”.  That’s the relentless campaign by David Cameron’s Australian spin-doctor Lynton Crosby to get rid of any niggling problems in government policy and activity which Labour and the Liberal Democrats might use against the Conservatives between now and the election.


In this case the measures relate to fixed odds betting terminals – or Fobties – the electronic gaming machines which were brought to this country in the early noughties and which have transformed the nation’s high street betting shops.  Indeed, Lynton Crosby may know a thing or two about Fobties as the machines were introduced in Australia long before the UK.

By law each betting shop is only allowed four such machines, but on average they make £47,000 a year in profit.  They now account for almost half the turnover of Britain’s 33,000 bookmakers’ shops, and generate £1.6bn in profit for the industry.

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Critics sat Fobties are highly addictive, and certainly I found it very compulsive when I played on a machine a couple of years ago (fortunately I wasn’t gambling with my own money).  The crucial aspect is the speed.  Unlike betting on horses or dogs, where you have to wait several minutes between each race, with Fobties  punters can accumulate huge losses very, very quickly.

£100 a spin

The maximum stake is £100 a spin, but you can bet every twenty seconds.  Do the sums.  In just a few minutes, if you’re unlucky, you can lose thousands of pounds – £36,000 an hour, in theory, and there are many stories of people losing several thousand pounds in one quick session.

And over time many have lost a lot more than that.  Michael O’Grady from Middlesbrough reckons he’s lost £150,000 playing the Fobties over the last decade.  But worse than this – his addiction to the machines has cost him his family, too.  His wife and daughters have left him because of an addiction which was eating up the family budget, and causing distrust as O’Grady lied to his wife about what he was doing.

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Today half a dozen staff from the bookmaking industry delivered a petition to Downing Street with a million names arguing against any further government measures which might threaten the betting industry.  Ten thousand jobs are potentially at stake, staff said, as I spoke to them at the gates of Downing Street.

The problem for ministers is that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have seized on the Fobty issue, and denounced the machines as causing huge hardship.  For Labour, it’s rather embarrassing as it was the Blair government which originally relaxed the rules to allow Fobty machines in Britain.  The party’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has told me that was a big mistake.  And it’s often Labour voters, in poor inner-city seats such as Harman’s in Southwark, who are suffering the most.

The Liberal Democrats are also on the warpath, and want the maximum stake cut from £100 a spin to just £2.

“Harmless” fun

But the bookmaking industry insists such measures are unnecessary and will threaten their business.  It’s harmless “fun” they say, and they point to various measures they have taken to promote responsible gambling.  Bookmakers have to display leaflets in their shops from Gamcare, a charity which helps gamblers with problems. And bookmakers are also obliged to allow punters to “self-exclude” themselves – a process whereby they can submit a form asking bookmakers to ban them from their premises for a set period.

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But betting shop managers to whom we’ve spoken – both current managers and past – say that such measures are often a sham.  They say that the whole culture of bookies’ shops these days depends on the success of Fobty machines, and staff pay is heavily linked to the turnover of each shop.  It’s simply not in the interests of staff to police the self-exclusion system.  And where shops have scores of self-excluded former customers, it’s often difficult to remember who is excluded, or to recognise all their faces.

One current manager told us that shops often have only one member of staff on duty, and often feel intimated about confronting punters they suspect are betting too much, but who might react in a violent manner. “I’m not a social worker,” this manager told us.

Staff also tell of how unsuccessful punters often take out their frustration, by smashing up the machines, or by being aggressive or violent towards staff.

Addictive

One current manager has told us Fobties “are the most addictive form of gambling I’ve ever come across”.  A former manager, Sam Hollis, says people who play the machines are “completely different” to the sedate nature of traditional customers of bookies’ shops.  “They get aggressive, they chase their losses, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for people to actually smash machines, throw chairs around, abuse staff, when they’ve lost a lot of money.”

Hollis has told the programme that when he ran a new Paddy Power shop last year the shop had no self-exclusion forms to hand out.  In one shop where he worked staff were encouraged to visit rivals’ shops, watch who was spending large sums.

Reponsible

Paddy Power told Channel 4 News in a statement: “Paddy Power is a responsible operator that takes problem gambling extremely seriously and fully complies with its regulatory obligations [including] the ABB code on responsible gambling. We have thoroughly, fully and carefully investigated the allegations made by an individual who worked at Paddy Power for five months and are satisfied that they are completely untrue.”

This week’s measures are likely to be very much an interim package – giving local councils more power to block plans for new betting shops, and cutting the maximum stake per spin from £100 to £50 – though customers will still be allowed to go up to £100 again with special permission from the shop manager.

What everyone is waiting for is academic research due to be published later this year into the effects of Fobty machines, and exploring how addictive they are.

If that research shows Fobty machines are significantly more addictive than traditional forms of gambling then the pressure will be on ministers, before the election, to bring in a package of much tougher measures.

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16 reader comments

  1. Richas (@RichasAA) says:

    Profit? You claim that these machines make a “profit” of £1.5bn a year but that is the Gross Gambling Yield (GGY). That is the amount paid in by punters, less the amount paid out to punters. That is not profit, that is revenue,.

    From that you need to take little things like rates, 25% tax, £2.5k a machine licencing fee, the shop licencing fee, wages, heat, lighting, the mandatory tv rights payments before the shop can open, cleaning, fixtures and fittings, the roughly 10% paid to the machine suppliers…essentially evey single cost of the 9000 offices needs to be accounted for before you get to “profit” and then the bookies pay the corporation tax on that too.

    Please do not keep perpetuating the myth that GGY is “profit”.

    1. jojo says:

      well said Richas, people are not looking at the whole picture,

  2. JJ Woods says:

    Make no mistake these gaming apparatus are seriously addictive and are located in the most accessible areas.

  3. Andy Gosling says:

    The FOBT is the only way you can lose your entire salary in a lunch hour. Those “customers” are what keeps the “average” profit per machine looking rosy to shareholders.

  4. S Devereux says:

    The petition in question is to halt a further tax increase, which would see the closure of many shops and staff losing their jobs if it goes ahead. The recent jabs at the betting industry concerning the FOBTs is a completely different story!
    Once again the media are really making a mountain out of this, constantly quoting inaccurate figures and telling far less than half the real story. The FOBTs (not fobties or fobtys) do account for half the industries revenue but times have changed, punters have changed and technology has changed. The majority of the betting shop community enjoy playing on the gaming machines with no problems at all. Less than 5% of punters have a problem with gambling.
    All betting shop staff are now sufficiently trained on how to identify possible problem gambling and how to deal with it from positive interaction to self exclusion and even issuing trespass notices in extreme circumstances.
    This country has far worse problems with other addictions such as alcohol and drug abuse, which destroys many many more families and puts a huge strain on the NHS. Political parties should be looking at these issues, surely they would win more votes as they effect much more of the population?

  5. Gail says:

    I’ve played these machines. Still do. Although i try to be careful, sometimes it can get out of hand. I do bet on football each week which is fine, but these machines are addictive. If these machines were taken out of bookies that would be a blessing for many, however there are some who would take their gambling online, that can be even worse as it’s way more surreal.

    All the bookmakers have been collecting signatures for a petition to send to the government. The funny thing about this is that many punters will travel to half a dozen bookmakers during a given day, which means that however many signatures they say they have; you need to divide that number by about 6 and that is the true number of how many punters have actually signed this.

    On the subject of staff preventing or even advising punters on how much they are feeding these machines. I put this to the test the other day. Four times i asked for money to be debited from my card in order to chase a loss on these machines. We’re not talking pennies here. Not once did they ever ask me if i was sure i wanted to carry on or even offer advise. Fortunately i won but even in winning the feeling isn’t good.

    In all the time i have used these machines, only one guy has ever asked me if ‘things’ were ok.

    When asked to sign the petition, my answer to it was this. I told them (at several different shops) that although i wouldn’t want people to lose their jobs (which was their way of trying to get people to sign) I did tell them that last year when i went abroad for two weeks, not once did i think ‘my gosh what i really could do with right now is a bit of gambling’. My point being. If you was to take half of the betting shops away from the ‘highstreet’ then we simply wouldn’t miss them. And to be honest if all betting shops were closed, i wouldn’t miss them one bit. Might do something more productive with my time.

  6. Michelle says:

    Let’s put loads of people out of jobs! That sounds like a fantastic idea.

  7. John says:

    I have to laugh at the bookmakers trying to defend these machines. Iv played them sinse they first came into the shops in 2001 and iv lost a lot of money on them, they are most defiantly addictive. They really do need banning completly and if not banning then the stake should be reduced to a maximum £2 a spin or bet. The bookmakers say that shops will close and people will lose there jobs if the maximum stake is reduced from £100 to £2 per spin so that just proves how much money these machines are making, yet they say there is no problem with these machines haha it’s a joke people must just have money to burn then if there having fun losing thousands of pounds playing them. I would love nothing more than for all the bookmakers to lose them machines and so wot if hundreds of people lose there jobs it’s about time the shoe was on the other foot do they care about the thousands of people losing there family’s and home because of them machines no they don’t and that is clear because they are still defending them. The bookies have had a good 10 years making money on them machines it was enevitble it would come to an end at some point I just hope it’s sooner rather than later. David camron open your eyes and get them machines out of them shops.

  8. Jon says:

    These machines are worse then a drug addition everyone has a choice but these fobts suck you right in I been gambling on them 8 years and until a month ago could not get off them for a day I put every penny I have into them and lost everything. In 21 minutes I lost £1910 due to me being a problem gambler they have cost me my life as it was friends and family which I am rebuilding . On fobts when you start to lose your stake becomes higher and higher and before you know it you putting 20 pound notes in like its penny’s they make you lose control any warning that appears due to the new policy is included in the 29 seconds u wait for the next spin so in affect you only waiting a further 10 seconds . Every town that is in on the fall is now filled full of bookies that promote these machines so people can lose there savings within hours or minutes . For people like me they can still try kick the habit but I’m 25 and now need gamcare everyweek due to these machines. Nobody can afford to lose £100 pound every 20 seconds, people always start small I did £20 a spin then within 6 months it was £40 and then £100… These machines ruin lives family’s and futures …. If these machines pay for the horses and dogs isn’t that like robbing Paul to pay Pete ?

  9. sunny says:

    Better now than late please, my life has been a mess since i started playing 3 years ago. Can’t remember last time wages last a week, please ban them completely.

  10. Ged says:

    max bets from a £100 to just £2 sounds like a good plan to me but a better 1 would be an out right ban on them. the Labour government wasn’t the only ones who made a mistake with them, the people did also we made the mistake of playing them and know being an adict who can go to any street corner to get my fix i feel i have no control. like today for example i woke up with the irge to gamble so i did and lost £50 i know it don’t sound like much but now i have nothing to live on for the next 12 days. i know i was only hurting myself when i done it, but i did it anyway. i feel if they was not there then i wouldn’t do it. no other form of gambling has ever intersted me. i know i am better off when i don’t do it as i knever really win anything anyway. but this is what are book makers call harmless fun. p.s feeling really low right now as i feel i can’t control my actions and have even thought the only way out was suicide.

  11. Richas (@RichasAA) says:

    These last two comments show why effective self exclusion is important, self exclusion can protect those that want to opt out whilst letting those without problem gambling issues and the shops to carry on.

    Self Exclusion is the key.

  12. alan barclay says:

    I to have to laugh at how the bookies defend these machines
    They go on about overheads for each shop, well don’t open shops like no tomorrow. As for people losing their jobs, sorry they don’t care about us, so the feeling Is mutual.
    Certain people want a spin reduced to £2 (not me).
    I still think, you can do a lot of damage,as these machines are addictive (I have fallen into this trap).
    Whos going to stop you throwing £2 in say every 30 secs.
    say you lost £4 in a minute, potentially £240 an hour (still a lot of money, but more alarmingly the addiction is still there).
    And when the addiction is there, whats stopping you from sitting in your house logged into hills,ladbrokes, corals etc) for hours and hours, all day and night, playing roulette.
    I undersand theres all sorts of gambling online (bingo, horse racing etc) but they give you breathing space, between each game/ event, roulette dosnt.
    Leave the likes of roulette to the casinos, and get these machines OUT the bookies, and OFF the internet. Oh and why do the likes of bet 365 want to give you free game play (SURELY NOT TO GET YOU ADDICTED!!!!)

  13. Ian Bartlett says:

    These machines are highly addictive. I used to be a prolific gambler for 40 years, but when I started playing the FOBTS things started to spiral out of control rapidly. Within weeks I was £10,000 in debt and it has taken me 2 years of working all hours to pay of this debt. I will now never gamble again. I have witnessed under age gambling on many different occasions, youngsters playing the terminals unchallenged. There needs to be a locking/unlocking device installed on every terminal so that at the point of play the underage are prohibited access. Gambling commission figures show that in 2007 109,000 children entered a bookmaker, in 2013 588,000 and 27,000 were stopped after placing there first bet. Ian Bartlett founder Gamserve.

  14. mike n says:

    These machines are really addictive. Losing most of my wages each month and struggling financially was not what I dreamt of when I was young, but these machines in the last couple of years have really messed my life up and the government should either give more help to problem gamblers or regulate this industry more. If we allow bookies to cheat us like this, as the pay outs from these machines are usually 14% or lower, whilst the bookies say its fixed odds and argue otherwise, and the government seriously thinks there is nothing wrong with that, why not make other forms of industry legal like pimping and drug dealing???

  15. Craig says:

    I say go back to the old days regarding the bookies opening times get rid of these horrible machines.the industry go on about no one bets on horse racing anymore you think maybe because they are spending all there money in machines these things are a big problem end of story who cares about all the jobs they only became available because of these machines any way get a job in tesco back to the old days I say if these machines stay in shops how can u expect youngsters to get involved with conventional betting if these life wreckers are still there

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