Why I...want an immediate end to the deregulation of gambling

November 19, 1999

According to a report by the University of Salford, people in the United Kingdom spend a staggering Pounds 110 million every day on gambling. It is fascinating, but also worrying, that once let off the leash, gambling seems to develop a life of its own and quickly becomes a monster of unforeseen proportions. The story so far begins, but does not end, with the introduction of the National Lottery, which celebrated its fifth birthday this week.

The 1968 Gaming Act, still in force, provides that there should be no stimulation of gambling beyond existing levels. This provision was set aside for the National Lottery, resulting in the most persistent and spectacular marketing campaign in recent history.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the gambling industry screamed "unfair playing field". They demanded, and won, concessions for their own services: higher jackpots, faster games, a reduction in the minimum age and amount of advertising allowed.

Considered cumulatively, the piecemeal process has amounted to a substantial loosening of the chains on the gambling industry, but without proper parliamentary debate.

The dynamics of the process are self-perpetuating. Unless we stop now, step back and think strategically, it is difficult to see where it will end. Will the National Lottery lobby for faster and more addictive games so it can compete with, say, the slot machine industry?

And somewhere along the way the terminology has changed. The word "gambling" has been replaced by various euphemisms such as "leisure opportunity". Indeed, in the run up to its launch, the National Lottery was promoted as productive leisure. What was formerly a vice is now a virtue. In addition, child fruit machine gambling - outlawed in other countries - is allowed in the UK.

Gambling is not a "normal good" - there is a downside. Because poorer people gamble more than the rich, there is a corresponding redistribution of wealth and taxes raised are regressive. Above all, gambling is addictive for some people and can lead to financial ruin, crime and even suicide.

At a fringe meeting at this year's Labour Party conference, Mike O'Brien, Home Office under-secretary with responsibility for gambling, acknowledged that a look at the legislation is well overdue. So it is. Time to stop; time to review; time to deliberate before the monster becomes even more unruly than it already is.

Sue Fisher

Director of the centre for research into the social impact of gambling

University of Plymouth

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