Belfast Telegraph

Punters bet £535m on machines dubbed 'crack cocaine of gambling'

By Adrian Rutherford

Punters in Northern Ireland bet more than half-a-billion pounds on high-stakes machines dubbed the "crack cocaine" of gambling in a single year.

Around £1,020 a minute was waged on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in 2014.

The terminals are £100-a-spin, digital casino gaming machines found only in betting shops.

An estimated 907 machines are installed in 312 shops across Northern Ireland.

While some argue they are good for the economy, opponents say they are creating gambling addicts and ruining people's lives.

It has prompted calls for the Government to step in and impose limits on the amount people can gamble.

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling wants the stake reduced from £100-a-spin to just £2.

Campaign consultant Adrian Parkinson has already met Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey to discuss the issue.

Mr Parkinson said he was surprised how prevalent the machines were in Northern Ireland.

"They are making bookmakers substantial profits, which are increasing incrementally," he said.

"But as we are now finding out across the UK, there is a huge social cost in allowing high-stake, high-speed gaming of this type in such easily accessible gambling venues like betting shops."

FOBTs have been branded gambling's equivalent of crack cocaine because of their highly addictive characteristics. They allow stakes of £100 to be laid every 20 seconds on casino games.

In some cases they account for half of bookmakers' profits, but can leave gamblers with massive bills. In one high-profile case in England a man blew £200,000 in 10 years after becoming hooked on the machines. Simon Perfitt from the West Midlands went from a £50,000 job to living on benefits after blowing up to £3,000 per day.

Campaigners want a £2-a-go cap to stop more lives being ruined by the habit. Mr Parkinson called for Northern Ireland to follow the lead being taken elsewhere in the UK.

"In England 93 local authorities are demanding the Government takes action on FOBTs by cutting the stakes to £2 per spin, whilst in Scotland both Labour and the SNP are demanding more powers to help them deal with the problem," he added. "Unlike councils and other legislative bodies in the UK, Northern Ireland does have the power to deal with FOBTs.

"A strategic review of gambling policy is currently under way and so the Northern Ireland Executive has the opportunity and the power to do what so many on the mainland are calling on Westminster to do: cut the stakes on FOBTs."

It is estimated that £100m was put into machines here last year.

Over £535m was gambled in total - in other words winnings which were immediately reinvested in a fresh bet. West Belfast and North Belfast - two of the most deprived areas - had the highest amounts gambled, £53,866,141 and £61,846,310 respectively.

Former Armagh GAA star Oisin McConville described how he was lured into the gambling habit aged just 14. McConville, who conquered his problem to become an addiction counseller, told the BBC: "By the age of 17 or 18 it completely controlled me.

"I loved everything about it. I was in a relationship with it. It was the only thing that mattered."

At the height of his addiction he blew £20,000 on a single bet.

Factfile

Amount gambled by area:

East Antrim: £13,985,803

East Belfast: £31,920,676

East Londonderry: £29,925,634

Fermanagh/South Tyrone: £25,174,445

Foyle: £57,856,225

Lagan Valley: £15,384,383

Mid-Ulster: £22,377,285

Newry/ Armagh: £22,377,285

North Antrim: £16,782,963

North Belfast: £61,846,310

North Down: £12,587,223

South Antrim: £13,985,803

South Belfast: £53,866,141

South Down: £26,573,025

Strangford: £19,580,124

Upper Bann: £43,890,930

West Belfast: £53,866,141

West Tyrone: £13,985,803

TOTAL: £535,966,197

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