Is gambling an exploitative industry? Should the government do more to regulate it?
These are questions that are being asked now that the British government has started the process of conducting a review into Fixed Odds Betting Terminals and whether a maximum rate should be set for these.
According to the UK’s industry regulator more than 400,000 people in the UK now have a serious gambling addiction and some 2 million are borderline cases. In fact the regulator, the Gambling Commission, thinks that the government is not doing enough to regulate this sector.
You can see why the regulator might think this: gambling has now become so mainstream, it’s been practically normalised. There are more than 9000 licensed betting shops in the UK, and every high street in the country seems to have at least one. Add to this the 24/7 nature of online gambling — the betting shop and casino that is in your home, or your office or on your commute — and you realise that the online aspect is almost like a drug home delivery for an addict, there whenever you want it.
Is it fair to compare gambling to heroin? Yes, in that both are the cause of dangerous addictions. But whereas heroin is illegal, gambling is becoming more and more accessible. As victims struggle to control the compulsion to gamble, and as they drive themselves into debt and crime, those investing in this industry are making fortunes.
Take for example Denise Coates: she is one of the richest women in Britain, her net worth is estimated at £4 billion, and she is co-CEO of one of the world’s largest online gambling companies (Bet365). She and her brother started the company in 2001, although both had worked in their father’s betting shops when they were younger. So even though most gamblers might be losing, the people investing in gambling companies are winning — big time.
Is there a strong enough argument to regulate gambling more strictly or should the government mind its own business? I personally favour intervention as the easy availability of this practice is in fact targeting and ruining the most vulnerable of society, those for whom the jackpot signifies salvation, and those very people who can scant afford such a compulsion and such risk. Much has been said about regulating PayDay loans — those instant loans at exorbitant rates that can ‘tide people over till their next pay check’ — because they trap people in a spiral of debt, but not enough is said about gambling sites doing much the same thing. These gambling sites are even allowed to advertise on TV, another area that critics think should be curtailed.
One could even draw a parallel here with smoking — for decades an under-regulated industry. For years tobacco companies advertised and pushed their wares and got thousands of people addicted to their products. When lots of people had been ruined and killed by this habit, western countries did things like putting health warnings on packs, banning ads and generally making public places and venues non smoking. The tobacco companies with their obscene profits simply turned their attention to other countries where they could exploit more consumers and make millions more dollars off people’s nicotine addiction.
Gambling can be as dangerous as nicotine or heroin, possibly even more dangerous because it is based on the get-rich-quick-dream, the idea that one win will change your life and sort out all your monetary problems. And because the stakes are so high, it is linked to crime — the rigging of sports and the bribing of sports competitors the most obvious example.
But of course the social and family cost of this expensive addiction is likely to be overlooked because of so-called ‘economic benefits’: apparently the betting industry is a key contributor to the UK economy. And so the consideration that this destroys lives or exploits the most vulnerable becomes unimportant in the face of ‘the monetary benefit to the economy’.
A risky business…