Betting nearly destroyed me. The industry must not be allowed to water down online gambling reform

The Guardian
Super Slots

Thirteen years ago, I was suicidal. I remember overwhelming feelings of guilt, and a loss of agency. I no longer felt in control of my own life, and while I had racked up significant debts that took many years to repay, it wasn’t just a gradual loss of money that led to a collapse in my mental health. It was what gambling had done to my brain.

I had been sucked in to fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which until 2019 permitted stakes of up to £100 a spin in betting shops. The rapid event frequency, high stakes and addictive roulette content were the factors that brought on a form of psychological dependence. My suicidal ideation came not because of the amount of money I had lost, but because I didn’t have access to any more money to gamble with. I could no longer escape from the problems gambling itself had created.

I am fortunate to have not taken my own life, and to have repaired the damage my addiction caused to me and to others. But many are not so lucky. Public Health England estimates there is one gambling-related suicide every day, with the mental health consequences worsened by a stigmatising “responsible gambling” narrative that diverts the blame for addiction away from harmful gambling industry products and practices, instead locating it solely with the individual.

So the reforms announced to online gambling regulation by the culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, are long overdue. It is a sector that currently generates 86% of its profit from the 5% of gamblers who are addicted or at risk, and has been subject to a government review since December 2020. In that time, online gambling firms have raked in £13bn from punters. So while the gambling white paper represents a big step forward in many areas, it’s disappointing that after such a drawn-out process much of the measures will be subject to further consultation.

Having reduced the maximum stake on FOBTs to £2 in 2019, it’s a no-brainer to now apply that to slots – especially given that the government claims to want to bring our analogue gambling laws into the digital age. Instead, the £2 limit will apply to those aged under 25, with stakes of between £2 and £15 to be consulted on. An improvement in any case, given there are currently no limits to stakes. Online slots carry a rate of problem gambling and at-risk gambling of about 45% of people who use them, and generate half of the total losses to online gambling of £7bn a year.

While it’s welcome that the government has recognised the need for affordability checks, the proposed loss thresholds that trigger them – £500 in a day for under-25s and £1,000 a day for everyone else – appear out of touch in a cost of living crisis, especially given the decline in average disposable income in this country. It is hoped that the consultation phase will iron out some of these inconsistencies, but this must arrive at a decision made on the basis of evidence and not gambling industry lobbying.

The Conservative MP Scott Benton had the whip suspended earlier this month after he was caught up in a Times sting operation offering to lobby ministers on behalf of the gambling industry. But the big win for campaigners is the statutory levy, which on implementation will provide £150m a year for research, education and treatment. This will be administered independently of the gambling industry, which had been lobbying vociferously to maintain a voluntary system that provided inadequate funding and allowed gambling firms to determine where the money went.

Anyone can get addicted to gambling, and through inadequate regulation the sector has grown reliant on revenues from those experiencing harm. The measures announced on Thursday must be implemented promptly: the industry cannot be allowed to slow down implementation or water down effective policy. Only then will consumers be protected and the sector restrained from the destruction it leaves behind in the pursuit of profit.