FOBTs are the 'crack cocaine' of gambling world... the government is right to limit the damage they do
The 430,000 people in the UK with betting addiction need help to break the habit, says Nelson McCausland
For some people, gambling is simply an annual flutter on the Grand National, but figures from the Gambling Commission, the gambling industry watchdog, indicate that the number of problem gamblers in the United Kingdom has risen to more than 430,000.
Problem gamblers face real problems. The addiction can lead to financial problems, emotional problems and health problems, including mental health problems.
The number of people affected by problem gambling is far more than the 430,000 who are affected directly, because each problem gambler will probably have a family and there may well be an impact on partners and children, as well as the wider family circle.
A gambling addiction will very often damage relationships and gambling is now one of the common factors cited in divorce petitions. The scale of the impact is often underestimated.
Northern Ireland international footballer Keith Gillespie had a wonderful career at club and international level. He won 86 caps for his country between 1994 and 2008, but in 2010 he was declared bankrupt and it was reported that he had lost over £7m to his gambling addiction.
But for every celebrity with a gambling problem there are so many more people whose addictions do not reach the newspapers, or the national news.
Their losses may be less, but their income will be much more modest and the impact will be just as great.
The growth in gambling is partly due to new technology and online gambling now enables people to gamble at home, or even in the workplace, and they can do it 24 hours a day.
No longer is there any need to go to a betting shop, because you can gamble in the privacy of your own home. Online gambling is now the biggest sector within the gambling industry.
Each year, the industry in the United Kingdom takes almost £14bn off gamblers and it received a boost when Tony Blair's Labour government introduced the Gambling Act 2005, which came into effect in September 2007 and liberalised key aspects of gambling.
It was the biggest overhaul of gambling legislation in decades and, among other changes, it relaxed the rules around the advertising of gambling. For the first time, both high street and online betting firms were able to advertise on television.
Under an agreement with the industry, commercials for gambling can only be shown after the 9pm watershed, but there is an exemption for sporting events and around 95% of television advertising breaks during live UK football matches feature at least one gambling advertisement.
A check across 25 televised matches - a reasonable sample - showed that one in five of the adverts broadcast was for betting firms and in some games the figure was as high as one in three.
One major online gambling firm, which sponsors a popular television programme, has just announced a 24% increase in turnover and its profits are up by 54%.
Today, gambling is promoted in so many ways and roughly half the football teams in the English Premier League have sold shirt sponsorship to the betting firms.
The third biggest sector after online and the lottery is now the fixed odds betting terminal (FOBT), which has become known as the 'crack cocaine' of gambling.
These machines were developed as a way of circumventing the law and taking more money off gamblers. Someone gambling at an FOBT can bet up to £100 in a single bet and can do that every 20 seconds.
Much of the harm associated with problem gambling is hidden away, but it is very real and that is why there is legislation to control gambling.
Ten years on from the Gambling Act, it is right that the Westminster Government is reviewing the law and is proposing a significant reduction in the FOBT stake from £100 possibly down to £2, which would bring these machines into line with other gaming machines.
With 430,000 problem gamblers in the UK, there must be two or three times that number who are affected indirectly.
If some modest changes in the law, especially around advertising, online and FOBTs, would help to reduce that level of harm, then surely they should be welcomed?