This is a very wordy section and merely skims the surface of what controversies and evidence surround the subject of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. Feel free to skim the skimming! The key point is that it’s a murky and complex area for anyone taking an objective view. Those who are fired up by personal experience may hold extremely negative views of FOBties and emphasise their own and other’s actual negative experiences as paramount. In other areas of mental health, personal views and experience are considered very important in shaping policies so it’s worth bearing in mind that much of what follows is a battle between experts. Nevertheless, the experts and politicians, doctors and counsellors, councillors and MPs will have lots of knowledge of working with people who have shared their problems.

Elsewhere on the site are many claims that FOBties are harmful machines. Against this, it is often pointed out that there is no evidence for these claims. Those who support the claims say that there is plenty of evidence. Governments say that they base their policies on evidence. For instance, in allocating money to mental health, governments ask for evidence about the efficacy of treatments; mainly this is provided by experts. However, in the case of FOBties, there appears to be either a lack of evidence, not enough evidence or conflicting evidence as far as governments are concerned.

The subject of evidence – what counts as evidence, what counts as strong evidence, how evidence is interpreted – is a very complex area even among experts. Our case study in this section presents some of the complexity. It provides insights for students while allowing website readers to weigh up the situation for themselves.

The Association of British Bookmakers reply on their site to “frequently asked questions”:

Is it true that gaming machines (FOBTs) cause problem gambling?

As an industry we realise that the public has become increasingly concerned about gaming machines, also known as FOBTs, and problem gambling.

The ABB Code of Conduct contained new measures to allow machine players to set their own limits on gaming machines so they can decide how much money and time they want to spend before they start playing.

Set limits

Shop staff are also trained to interact with any customers who go beyond their limits or show other signs they are not in control of their gambling.

There is no proven link between gaming machines and problem gambling but the ABB is committed in our Code to funding further research into player protection and acting on the results.

The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB) was set up in late 2008 to advise the Gambling Commission and, in turn, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, on research,education and treatment programmes needed to support a national responsible gambling strategy and associated funding requirements.

responsible gambling strategy

The National Responsible Gambling Strategy 2016-17 to 2018-19

The strategy sets out a vision of what a desirable outcome would look like. Achieving the vision will be a significant challenge,requiring expertise, resources and commitment from a diverse range of stakeholders.

It will also require a willingness to take action on the basis of what is known, or can reasonably be inferred.Lack of complete information should not be allowed to be a barrier to progress

(Responsible Gambling Strategy Board Executive Summary, 3 and 4)

This website includes interest in the above areas, particularly in public engagement, education, the measurement of harm, and increased understanding of product characteristics (design) and environment. In one way, the range of the strategy is very daunting: after many years much further research is called for. In the UK parliament during 2016 after a call for submissions in October to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport and  the Gambling Commission it was announced that “Government will then consider proposals based on robust evidence.”

During a long debate about FOBties in parliament in January 2013, the following exchange took place:

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid Kent) (onservative): Yes, the Government are seriously concerned about problem gambling. This is one of those quite tricky areas where common sense suggests that it is a major problem but there is a lack of evidence to back that up. I very much hope that the major research project that is being undertaken will give us the necessary evidence and, absolutely,once the problem is proved to exist, the Government will act.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Conservative): Does the Minister agree that there is currently not much evidence to prove that fixed odds betting terminals are the most addictive form of gambling? Although I applaud his concern for the problems caused by problem gambling, will he reassure the House that he will proceed only on the basis of firm evidence when that is available?
Note the calls for “firm evidence” and “robust evidence” and the claims that “there is a lack of evidence” or “not much evidence”.

A research report by three academics published in 2016 in response to the Government’s call for evidence concluded:

All the sources of evidence we have explored point to the conclusion that the stakes on FOBTs should be substantially reduced from £100 or £50 to something closer to £10 in order provide more adequate protection for the vulnerable. This is the view of majorities amongst regular FOBT players, betting industry employees, problem gambling treatment professionals and the general public.
The conclusion from our own empirical research is that vulnerability to being or becoming a problem gambler substantially reduces for a significant proportion of regular FOBT players.

We have found it helpful in assessing the public policy implications of our research to think about maximum stakes on FOBTs using the analogy of speed limits. Different speed limits are appropriate for different environments. Certainly, in some environments (e.g. motor-racing tracks) presumably no speed limits are appropriate. Similarly, appropriate speed limits for built-up areas and country lanes will be much lower than for motorways. On this analogy, however, it is important to recognise that by allowing B2 machines in betting shops, the Government is permitting high stakes gambling in venues in high streets close to where people live, work and shop. Consequently, the possibility of staking £300 per minute on B2 machines may be thought of as the equivalent of at least a 100 m.p.h., if not a 200 m.p.h. speed limit in built-up areas. To most people, to permit this would seem to defy common sense and to constitute recklessness on the part of Government. Government should, therefore, be thinking about limits on permitted stakes on FOBTs in betting shops as analogous to speed limits in areas where fast driving is unusually likely to lead to casualties.

The Government should also be aware that the present high limits on FOBT stakes runs counter to the best available academic work on the costs and benefits of different gambling regulatory regimes. This recommends that high stakes gambling be confined to a small number of large and multi-purpose venues rather than a large number of small and single purpose venues (Eadington and Collins. 2009). It also runs counter to the long established principle and practice of UK gambling regulation, since the 1960s, that hard forms of gambling, including playing high stakes roulette, be confined to relatively few casinos which can be, and are, closely regulated, as opposed to the 33 000+ FOBTs in around nine thousand venues which it is impossible to regulate or even self-regulate effectively.
It may be objected that the reality is that very few people actually play for £50 or more just as very few people would ever drive at 100 m.p.h. even if that were the speed limit in built-up areas. Consequently, the effectiveness in terms of gambling-related harm reduction would be negligible. We think, by contrast, that a perhaps fairly small number of B2 players, who are clearly vulnerable to losing much more than they can afford to, would be helped by substantial stake reduction, given that some 50% of our sample of regular FOBT players show up as being at moderate or high risk of gambling addiction. Moreover, such is the devastation that addictive gambling brings that, just as enforcing speed limits may only avoid a small number of deaths and mutilations in motor accidents, with respect to gambling on FOBTs, even if only a small number of people were rendered less vulnerable to remaining or becoming gambling addicts as a result of substantially reducing the maximum stake per spin, would still be eminently justified. As with other serious diseases, comparatively cheap prevention strategies are worth embarking on even if the benefits are fairly small and the prevalence fairly low. In the case of gambling addiction amongst people who play FOBTs the rate of vulnerability to addiction appears to be quite high and the impact of a substantial reduction of maximum permitted stakes would appear to be significant. Giving the extreme distress which gambling addiction causes to those who suffer from it and to others, it is hard to think of convincing reasons for not legislating for such a reduction. By contrast, the cumulative case in support of such legislation would seem to be overwhelming.

It is significant that the report is highlighted on GambleAware’s website since while it is an independent charity (and well worth a visit as it is full of information) it is funded by the betting industry and some have questioned its impartiality. Yet, the organisation also includes on its site a signposting to one such criticism, from Health Promotion International, Battling Big Booze and Big Bet: why we should not accept direct funding from the alcohol or gambling industries

Controversies within research

A 2013 report, Fair Game: Producing gambling research from Goldsmiths College, University of London highlights some of the difficulties research faces. Regarding evidence, the authors claim, perhaps controversially:

What counts as evidence is determined by political, rather than academic priorities.

A narrow definition of evidence makes many of the questions asked by policy makers impossible to answer, either because they are too simplistic, or because the money does not exist to fund the projects which wouldallow them to be answered, or because the data required to answer them is inaccessible.

The impact of evidence is unpredictable because its reception is contingent on factors including the constitution of boards, the personalities of board members, timing and luck.

The function of ‘safe’ gambling research is rhetorical. It enables the existing relationships between research, the industry and the state to endure, while meeting public expectations that research should take place.

Finally, as in many other fields, policy makers do not make decisions about gambling based solely on evidence, however it is defined.

Such claims by academics add further complexity to the already complicated area of evidence. The report goes on to recommend:

Critical studies of gambling should investigate a wider range of social processes, including not only individual behaviour but also problem games, problem products and problem policies.

Policy makers should consult a wider range of experts and recognise a wider variety of evidence. By focusing exclusively on problem gambling and causal relationships they serve the interests of the industry, which is interested in limiting regulation and minimising change

The suggestion here is that research should focus not only upon an individual gambler as a ‘problem’ but to broaden out research, and as Priority 4 in the National Gambling Strategy box above, look at the machines themselves, and, additionally, government policies.

An article atthe Bureau of Investigative Journalism also considers the wider context of FOBtie gambling:

‘You lose your sense of money when you’re on the machines – it means nothing,’ says David Armstrong, who has battled a destructive addiction to fixed-odds betting terminals. ‘It’s so quick, you’re thinking just one more spin, just one more – until you walk out and you’ve lost it all.’

At the height of his compulsive gambling, he remembers spending £15,000 in a single day, putting up to £100 on a single 20-second spin of the roulette wheel. ‘When you start putting £100 a spin on, other people crowd around the machine: you’re on top of the world – you’re buzzing,’ he said. ‘They’re all shouting and chanting little rhymes, the buzz is incredible. And then four hours later you walk out – my goodness, what have I done?’

The reference to the ‘buzz’ is highligted elsewhere where players report a zone they enter which, as it were, provides a ‘fix’. In the zone, players lose sesnse of money, time and even whether they are winning or losing. This is especially the focus of research we look at in the section Addiction by Design?

The article continues:

The speed with which you can play and then bet again – the ‘event frequency’ – helps determine how addictive a form of gambling is, experts believe.

‘I could design you the safest slot machine in the world: all you would do is push the button once a week. But on a fixed-odds betting terminal, you can gamble a lot of money in a very short time, and it’s those characteristics that cause problems,’ said Professor Mark Griffiths, a machine gambling expert.

‘To develop a gambling problem, there has got to be some sort of susceptibility to begin with. But event frequency is the single most important structural characteristic for making fixed-odds betting terminals problematic,’ he added.

While no study has yet established that this speed causes normal gamblers to develop a problem, a 2009 study on how people interact with gaming machines found that problem gamblers tend to prefer fast, simple games…

Yet it is important to remember that all research and interpretation of findings is open to challenge by other research projects and interpretations. That is the way of all scinces including social sciences.

A Parliamentary briefing paper, Number 06946, 24 February 2017, gives a very good overview of POBtie evidence, controversy, and governmental involvement. In one section it states:

FOBTs remain controversial. Critics point out that it is possible to lose large amounts of money and that the machines have a causal role in problem gambling.53 The betting industry disagrees.  Academic research suggests the causes of problem gambling are complex and are not well understood.
A selection of what’s been said is given below. It is not meant to be comprehensive.

Campaign for Fairer Gambling

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling (CFG) is running a “Stop the FOBTs” campaign:
Casino style games (B2) are considered hard core gambling that was previously restricted to highly regulated casinos. By introducing them to betting shops, access to this type of hard core gambling has been made available on every high street across the country.
The CFG wants the maximum stake on B2s reduced to £2.57
A number of research reports have been commissioned by the CFG and are available from its website. These include an April 2014 report by Landman Economics which claimed that “overall there is reasonably strong evidence of a link between FOBTs and problem gambling based on a wide range of previous research from academic studies”.

 A report by NERA Economic Consulting critically reviewed the impact assessment in an ABB paper (see below).
According to another report by Landman Economics, increases in spending on FOBTs would be “likely to destroy jobs in the UK economy rather than creating them”.

Association of British Bookmakers

In an April 2013 paper, the ABB claimed there was “”no evidence of a causal link between problem gambling and electronic gaming”:
The average amount spent by customers on a B2 gaming machine is around £11 per machine per hour.
And 74% of B2 players play once a month or less which is hardly reflective of an addictive product. There is no evidence of a causal link between gaming machines and higher levels of problem gambling and the percentage of identified problem gamblers playing on B2 machines actually went down by 20-25% from 2007 to 2010…
The ABB paper refers to the economic and social benefits of licensed betting offices.62 It claims that a reduction to £2 of the maximum stake on B2 machines would put 90% of betting shops and nearly 40,000 jobs at risk and result in the Treasury losing nearly £650 million in tax.

Responsible Gambling Trust – gaming machines research

In 2014, the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), now known as GambleAware, commissioned research looking at whether:
• it was possible to distinguish between harmful and non-harmful gaming machine play?
• if it was, what measures might limit harmful play without impacting on those who do not exhibit harmful behaviours?
Seven research reports, available from the GambleAware website, were published in December 2014.

It is interesting to note that evidence includes reference to jobs and tax revenue. An important question is implied: how far should governments balance tax revenue against potential social dangers? Related to this are the views that people – including policy makers – have regarding business freedom, and the degree of personal responsibility assumed to machine players.

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