when the fun stops, stop

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This is going to surprise you. Last year the government did a beautiful thing and they did it for all the right reasons. Eschewing a barrow-full of tax receipts for the Chancellor’s coffers, they surprised everyone concerned, myself included, in reducing the fixed-odds-betting-terminal (FOBT) gambling stake from a maximum of one hundred pounds a spin to a relatively meagre two-quid. For this bold, and unexpected, step they deserve our respect and gratitude. It was this move that kinda fills me with some hope they’ll continue upon this righteous and enlightened path. Probably.

Gambling addiction is nothing new. I fully concede that as long as people have gambled, there have been gambling addicts. And as long as there have been competitive or unpredictable events, people have wagered on the outcome. However, the deregulatory Gambling Act of 2005 which facilitated TV advertising, succeeded in creating the perfect addiction storm. Hand-in-hand with the raft of tech innovations encompassing mobile device development and social media proliferation, the gambling industry’s bookies, websites and casinos set their sights fairly and squarely on the impressionable, the vulnerable and the young. Consequently, fifteen years down the £1.5bn/year-advertising-budget line there are now 55,000 ‘problem gamblers’ aged 11-16 in this country, and a barely believable 450,000 adolescents who gamble regularly. Twice as many are likely to gamble than drink or take drugs. With an iPhone in every teenage pocket, gambling is the new-norm.

If FOBTs are the crack-cocaine of the gambling industry then the newer format of online in-play sports betting, where gamblers bet on specific aspects of a competition such as who’s going get the next goal, yellow card, throw-in or whatever, is their crystal meth. In the days of a tobacco smoke-filled turf accountant’s office, you gambled on the outcome of a match, game or race but this new style offers a never-ending series of unpredictable and ‘bet-able’ events, all designed to hit the delightful ‘Pavlov’s Dogs’ dopamine spot.

Needless to say, the gambling industry has no intention of derailing its own gravy-train and will have to be brought to the table kicking and screaming. It continually speaks in terms of personal and societal responsibility, and there has to be a level of this, but fails to admit that their ‘formats’ are clearly, cleverly designed by some of the planet’s biggest brains and continually use a pattern of lures and rewards that have repeatedly been demonstrated to quickly, subtly develop habitual behaviour. Furthermore, even seemingly innocuous videogames now invariably contain insidious ‘loot boxes’ that encourage players to splash the cash on unknown mystery items. Sega’s Football Manager is a perfect example yet is guided as being suitable for ages 4+. WTF. Let’s not beat around the bush, today’s children are being groomed as tomorrow’s gamblers.

The charity, Gambling With Lives, reports that upwards of 650 gambling-related suicides occur every year and we need to be unequivocal in calling-out those responsible: obviously the pernicious industry itself, the ineffective Gambling Commission, the voluntarily-funded GambleAware entity (supported to the tune of £10.5m against the aforementioned £10.5bn marketing budget), the complicit sports industry that has grown fat on the corporate sponsorship of the gambling industry, parental responsibility and control, and a government that has failed to control any level of promotion and profit.

This isn’t going to surprise you. Am I being overly benevolent and expecting too much? Unsurprisingly, in our glorious self-isolation, numbers have soared and we are now faced with a highly addictive suite of manipulative digital products being portrayed as both fun and safe when, in reality, it’s preying-upon a pool of young, miserable, susceptible individuals. As the NHS opens its first clinic for childhood addiction later this month, I know there will come a time in the near future when we will look back and say ‘what on earth were we thinking?’