Maximum stake on a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) to be reduced from £100 to £2 – are FOBTs really a problem?

Richard Taylor, 17th May, 2018

The government has announced this morning that the maximum stake on a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) will be reduced from £100 to £2.

This will be seen as a major victory for campaigners and is undoubtedly a massive blow to the retail bookmaking industry. It is estimated that this will lead to the closure of around 4,000 betting offices (just less than half of those in the UK), the loss of around 21,000 jobs and an estimated loss in tax revenue to the treasury of more than £1.5bn a year.

Before looking at FOBTs and whether there is evidence that their presence on the high street is a problem, I have to declare an interest. I have represented bookmakers in licensing applications and appeals for more than 20 years. In the circumstances, I understand betting offices, how they work and the people that use them. In the circumstances, I feel able to comment objectively on what has become a heated debate.

Those campaigning against fixed odds betting terminals have often trawled out the phrase that they are “the crack cocaine of gambling.” This description is based on no evidence at all. Indeed the phrase itself is originally attributed to Donald Trump (a man that’s never let facts get in the way when he opens his mouth) in the 1970s when he believed that video keno machines were a threat to his casino revenues. The description has then been attached to many new gambling products since (including The National Lottery and then scratch cards) before being adopted and endlessly repeated by the anti FOBT lobby.

That lobby also told us that it was possible to lose £18,000 in an hour on an FOBT. That’s true but it’s also possible to win the lottery two weeks running using exactly the same numbers. Statistically, the double lottery win is more likely. They also told us that the machines have led to a proliferation of betting shops. This is simply not the case. The latest Gambling Commission industry statistics show that numbers as of March 2017 were 8,788 - a decline of 349 since March 2014, when there were 9,137 recorded.

It’s worth mentioning the origins of the anti FOBT campaign. When FOBTs first appeared in the early 2000s, one of the most vociferous groups campaigning against FOBTs being in betting offices had very strong links to the casino industry. It is very obviously in the interests of the casino industry to limit the outlets for roulette type games. Their rhetoric has since been adopted by many a concerned politician councillor and local resident and the hysterical bandwagon has rolled on and gathered pace.

So is gambling on FOBTs a problem in this country? Yes, for a very small number of people, but only in the same way that alcohol or obesity is a problem for some. We’re not removing cake and alcohol from the shops or closing takeaways, so why should we effectively kill off a product that is lawful and enjoyed by many? For the vast majority of those that gamble, it is a harmless pastime and the best place to enjoy that pastime is in a regulated environment with highly trained staff and operators working within strict licence conditions.

The effect of this change will damage the high street further as shops close. It will damage the economy both from an unemployment perspective and from a huge reduction in tax revenues. Will it protect the public? No. Those that want to gamble on roulette or poker will do so online, whenever they like, in any state they may be in, with nobody to intervene if their behaviour suggests there may be a problem.

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