Gambling Addiction and the FOBT Controversy

Take a walk down any street in a London business district and pop your head into one of the many betting shops you will find along the way. You are likely to see several fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) complete with rabid punters feeding them with money. Moreover, while both business owners and the government are reaping great financial rewards from these terminals, there is a question as to whether or not these create or foster gambling addiction.

An FOBT machine is an electronic gaming machine allowing bettors to place wagers on any number of fixed odds games. The most commonly played game is roulette. Some machines also feature poker, slots, and simulated horseracing.

The problem with FOBTs is that these make it too easy to lose large sums of money in a single visit. The Independent illustrated this very point with a story printed on June 5 (2014). One of the shopkeepers it interviewed said that just one of her machines takes in £25,000 per week. Perhaps that is why FOBT machines have been called the ‘crack cocaine‘ of the gambling public.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely the government will do anything that might strangle the golden goose. Instead of talking about controlling the use of FOBTs more closely, it is planning a 5% tax hike in order to get more of their ‘fair share’. The government is not about to hamper a taxable industry now estimated to be worth £1.63 billion annually.

Feeding a Gambling Addiction

In order for any addiction to continue, the individual in question must have easy access to whatever it is that has him or her hooked. The alcoholic needs easy access to booze; a crack addict needs easy access to cocaine; a gambling addict needs easy access to wagers. That is exactly what FOBTs offer. Any gambling addict can walk in to a high street shop and get what he or she wants. Moreover, he or she can get it in full, living colour with all of the lights and sound effects to maximise the excitement.

It stands to reason that such easy access will feed a gambling addiction without restriction. As long as the addict has money, he or she can play. Nevertheless, what about creating a gambling addiction where none exists? Is it possible these machines can do that as well?

For the answer to that question, let us consider how an alcoholic gets started on his or her addictive journey. He or she does not wake up one morning and find him or herself dependent on alcohol. Rather, it starts with just a single drink at a nightclub or a family social gathering.

Perhaps he or she has a drink in order to ‘loosen up’ and relax. Perhaps he or she drinks because they want to forget something that has been troubling them. Either way, that first drink provides the pleasurable experience they are looking for. Therefore, they have another. A few days later, they drink again, remembering how pleasurable the first experience was. They eventually move to binge drinking, then on to alcohol abuse and total dependence.

We submit that gambling addiction works the same way. A person will play a couple of games only to be excited by the adrenaline rush. Whether he or she wins or loses does not matter. The thrill of the game leads them to play again in the future, until betting becomes a regular practice. The eventual addict will continue playing until it completely controls his or her life.

Just as an alcohol addiction starts with one drink, a gambling addiction starts with one bet. Those who criticise FOBTs claim the machines can indeed be the fuel for an eventual addiction. It is hard to argue based on what we know about addictive behaviours.

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