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A government flagship strategy to help addicts stop gambling may simply shift the problem from one part of the industry to another, experts warn – as it appears nothing has been put in place to evaluate its effectiveness.
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Bookmakers are to reduce stakes on “crack cocaine” gambling machines from £100 to £2 this week, but experts fear users will simply move on to other, equally dangerous forms of gambling.
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Although aware of this risk the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has not done any work to track how gamblers change their behaviour, and has no plans to do so.
The lack of comprehensive oversight means that a policy that former sports minister Tracey Crouch resigned in November may prove ineffective.
Dr Heather Wardle, a leading expert in behavioral gambling, welcomed the action taken on problem gambling, but said she was “deeply aware that such a major regulatory change will not be assessed to better understand the full range of outcomes and impact on people’s behavior”.
“You can only really do this effectively by talking to people themselves and understanding how these changes affect the way they think and feel about gambling and motivate them to change behaviour,” Dr Wardle said.
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Just three weeks before the pole cuts are due to come into force, DCMS has quietly published a report detailing major flaws in the evidence relied on for the policy. The department sat on the report for a year.
The Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) report shows that while bookmakers will lose out when stakes are cut to £2, other parts of the gambling industry stand to scoop a whopping £440m as players change their behaviour.
Even this figure may be an underestimate because it is not based on empirical evidence, the RPC report reveals.
Some of the hundreds of millions in gambling losses that will migrate from FOBTs are likely to go to sectors such as arcades and casinos which have spent huge sums of money lobbying MPs to cut FOBT stakes.
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Casinos and arcades own slot machines with many of the same addictive features as FOBTs. Because these machines are faster than FOBTs and pay less, players can lose money on slots just as quickly – even at lower stakes.
The RPC – a government body which assesses the evidence behind the proposals – initially found that the DCMS impact assessment for the £2 policy was “not fit for purpose”.
After DCMS made changes, the RPC gave it the green light but with a series of strong objections about the evidence they relied on. The committee said
Stronger evidence was needed on “what behavioral change the policy will result in, and what level of benefit this will generate”, the RPC said.
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“Given that we have already seen evidence of industry practices encouraging FOBT players to migrate to online platforms, it seems to me that you should want to understand these processes better so that you can understand the implications of the policy change and think about what’s next. regulatory action may or may not be necessary,” Professor Wardle said.
Overall, the DCMS estimates that £1.3bn of the £1.8bn currently lost each year on FOBTs will be moved to other forms of gambling when bookmakers implement the cut in stakes on 6 April. The industry regulator warns many of these alternatives are just as dangerous as FOBTs.
The RPC emphasizes that the government knew this problem at least a year ago: “The department recognizes that the displacement of other forms of gambling could include significant substitution of other gambling products or outside betting shops.”
And he suggests that he knew other parts of the industry would benefit: “The Department notes that this could have significant effects on competition in the game industry.”
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Mike Chatha, who has worked with problem gamblers for 25 years and is the author of a new book on the science behind gambling addiction, said that any attempt to tackle the problem must look at all forms rather than individual products.
There must be a “laser focus on one problem: that you cannot attack gambling problems by focusing on one product”, he said.
“You can’t control any addictive substance like that. You couldn’t attack alcohol by banning vodka. It’s just not possible.”
Mr Chatha, who suffered from his own gambling addiction for a decade before recovering, welcomed the introduction of a stake cut as a “minor miracle” given the huge pressure against him from bookies.
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“Hand, and it’s a big hand,” he added. “When someone is addicted, they need a certain amount of gambling to give them that hit. If they don’t get it anymore, they will simply change their product.
“In 25 years of working with Gamblers Anonymous I am not aware of a single example of someone who has been able to stop playing on a product and not have problems with others.
“In fact the opposite is true. People who can’t control their gambling think: ‘Well, I’ve lost a lot online, I’ll go to the casino. I’ve lost a load in the casino, I’ll go to the bookie ‘. It’s typical addict thinking.”
One step Mr. Chatha says would make a difference would be to get gambling machine manufacturers and online casinos to provide data on how people play, so experts can track dangerous signs.
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Although this is relatively simple and cheap for companies to do, neither the DCMS nor the Gambling Commission collect this data, or there is no plan to do so.
Arcade owners lobbied hard to cut FOBT stakes which the government knew benefited them financially.
Mr. Chatha said that to really have an impact on gambling addiction the government must massively increase the cost of treatment. There are hundreds of thousands of problem gamblers in the UK but there are only resources to help about 20,000 of them. Treatment costs lag behind those for alcohol and drug abuse.
People who recognize that they have difficulty controlling their gambling can sign up to self-exclude, meaning companies won’t take their money.
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But now the system is almost useless because it is incomplete which means gamblers can easily work around it, Mr Chatha said. To combat this he is crowdfunding for a new app that will block all online gambling sites.
When it comes to cutting the FOBT advantage to £2, addicted gamblers will not need to find a solution as they will still be able to lose money quickly on the same machines in the bookmaker.
While the public may be under the impression that “crack cocaine” betting machines have in effect turned into much less dangerous fruit machines, this is not the case.
FOBT machines run two game types only one of which is affected by the new stake limit. This category, known as B2, usually takes the form of roulette.
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But the same machines are also allowed to run slot machine-style games – category B3. The latter category allows players to bet eight times faster with jackpots as high as £500. It also takes a bigger cut of the spreads.
Gamblers lose money on slot machine games at £2 stakes as well as on FOBT games at £50 stakes, raising questions about why only one type of game is targeted.
A third of the total lost on FOBTs are already lost on slot machine games which will be completely affected by the new policy, DCMS acknowledges.
Given the availability of these games on the same machines, the amount of money lost on slots seems likely to rise when the stakes on roulette are drastically cut.
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The Gambling Commission said it had advised the government that high-stakes slot machine games were equally dangerous as high-stakes roulette, but the DCMS decided to focus only on one type.
Last month, the Gambling Commission ran out of a call to provide evidence of damage from other types of machines but has no indication when any results will be published or any action taken.
A spokesman for the commission said: “Our recommendations for the government’s gambling review were based on the best available evidence and focused on reducing the risk of gambling-related harm.
“Rejecting our call for evidence is based on our advice that a pole cut for B2 gaming machines does not address the risk of harm presented by other categories of gaming machines.
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“The gambling industry has an opportunity to demonstrate progress since the gambling review by testing and evaluating new player protection measures.”
A DCMS spokesperson said: “We have taken decisive action to ensure we have a responsible gambling industry that protects the most vulnerable in our society.
“By reducing the maximum FOBT to £2, we can help stop the extreme loss of the least able to afford it. This will target the largest proportion of problem gamblers and reduce the impact on those most vulnerable to harm.
“We were clear that problem gambling is not limited to one product, which is why we have brought in a package of measures to strengthen protection around gambling machines, online gambling, gambling advertising and treatment for problem gamblers.”
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