Meetings & Information


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What four years working in a bingo hall taught me about problem gambling

New rules ‘will crack down’ on exploitation of gambling addicts

But campaigners say measures to protect those at risk are just a sticking plaster over a serious problem

The stakes could be about to get a lot higher for the gambling industry, if regulators are to be believed. This week saw the introduction of new rules aimed at protecting problem gamblers and ramping up the pressure on firms that might exploit them.
A key measure is an upgraded “self-exclusion” system, under which addicts tell betting companies not to take their money. The new system lets addicts sign up to a central register shared by bookmakers, rather than excluding themselves from individual firms.
Companies also have to perform “local area risk assessments” before opening a new bookmakers or casino, checking for factors that might make new gambling premises undesirable.
The rhetoric accompanying the changes suggested that a bright light is going to be shone into some of the dingiest corners of the industry. But one difficulty for regulators and campaigners is that they are taking on an industry that makes annual revenues of £5.4bn, according to the latest available figures, and claims to support 38,000 jobs.
Sarah Harrison, who took over as head of the commission last year, certainly talks a good game: “My message has been that if you do not learn the lessons of recent cases and raise standards, we will intervene further, and this is likely to mean taking much tougher enforcement action.”
Paddy Power recently made a voluntary payment of £280,000 – equivalent to less than three hours’ worth of takings – to a “socially responsible” cause after it was found to have encouraged a problem gambler to keep betting.
he question of whether such punishments are sufficient is, says Harrison, a “live issue” for the commission. This may have been a tacit warning that harsher penalties await the next offender, but some campaigners say the improvements to the self-exclusion system are the mark of a watchdog missing a few teeth.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, used to be addicted to fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which are sometimes called the crack cocaine of gambling. He points out that the self-exclusion system relies on staff remembering the faces of problem gamblers – in some cases dozens in one area.
“They’ve simply made it easier to sign up to a system that doesn’t work,” he said. “The vast majority of self-exclusions are related to FOBTs, so wouldn’t it be more effective to look at the products causing addiction?”
According to the latest Gambling Commission research, problem gambling affects 0.5% of the adult population, about 280,000 people, with men and young people particularly at risk.
study by Cambridge University found that problem gambling rates soar to as high as 11.6% among the homeless.
Part of the thinking behind the new local area risk assessments is to ensure gambling companies are not targeting vulnerable groups. Westminster and Manchester councils are launching online mapping tools, developed by Bath-based Geofutures, that show areas where people may be at higher risk of harm from gambling. Users can spot bookmakers that set up shop near Gamblers Anonymous meeting places, payday loan shops or unemployment blackspots, and thus risk compounding existing social problems.
Harrison believes the Geofutures system could be used by all local authorities. “We’re keen to see this sort of tool rolled out across other authorities and to see gambling companies drawing on this to shape their local risk assessments and take action,” she said. But those whose lives have been affected by problem gambling fear such innovations are a sticking plaster that does little to address the roots of addiction.
Zarb-Cousin cites efforts to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, cigarettes and, recently, sugar: “The smoking ban did a lot more for reducing smoking-related illness and reducing the number of people that smoke than educating people about the dangers ever did.”

What four years working in a bingo hall taught me about problem gambling

Comment: Mary McCool on the dark underbelly of the cosy bingo hall.

There is one recreational activity so intense, so divisive and so insidiously harmful, it brings out the worst in the most placid of individuals: bingo.
I left a job in a bingo hall after four years with an overarching feeling of relief and three lessons under my belt.
1. The rhyming slang is sadly a thing of the past
2. Religion is relative (depending on the lucky effigy of the week)
3. Bank notes are filthier than the Panama Papers roster
It was a bizarre, often nightmarish environment - all jingles and showbiz peppered with tired catchphrases, where patrons would queue in their hordes to catch the first game of the day, and rush out at the final claim to nab a seat on the shuttle bus.
The customer demographic was surprisingly diverse. On any given day you would find 90-year-old great-grandmothers playing next to monied business owners, academics, young couples, alcoholics and the odd local celebrity. Most people smoked.
Whether intentional or not, it was also a front for a pool of problem gamblers (albeit a small percentage) who took up residence in the arcade, which could be open for 13 hours at a time.
Those who were undoubtedly addicts for fixed-odds betting terminals would wait outside the venue for the doors to open most days. They often looked tired, made regular trips to ATMs, sweated, swore, lied about their whereabouts to loved ones, and frequently stank.
Problem gambling is sometimes seen as the fanciful cousin of "real" addictions such as drugs or alcohol. Make no mistake, compulsive gambling is very real. It is a frightening illness and one the industry is guilty of propagating.

People forget to eat, drink or relieve themselves when stuck in front of fixed-odds betting terminals.
Mary McCool
Here's why.
Let's start with the fact that bingo halls, arcades and casinos comprehensively assault your senses the moment you step in the door. Bright carpets, flashing lights and screaming buzzers disorientate you from the get-go. And of course the decision-making process is further impaired as there's usually a fully-stocked bar where a pint can be cheaper than in Wetherspoons.
Time is also obscured. There are no clocks in arcades, no windows and, for bingo at least, the main indication of time is the announcer calling in patrons over the tannoy for the next session.
I've seen gamblers offered incentives to stay behind after bingo sessions - ranging from a cup of tea or a free meal to cash, providing the individual can match the amount paid into the machine by the company.
Grimly, these incentives are often a lifeline when a problem gambler is in the throes of a losing streak. That free meal, likely something that comes with chips, may be the only food they have eaten that day. People forget to eat, drink or relieve themselves when stuck in front of fixed-odds betting terminals.
The ease with which establishments can obtain licences from the authorities for these machines is nothing short of social negligence. At the end of 2015, the Scottish Parliament's local government and regeneration committee inquiry heard evidence suggesting there were around 839 fixed-odds betting terminals in licensed betting premises in Glasgow. Edinburgh had 421, North Lanarkshire 320 and South Lanarkshire 316. And that's just four out of 32 local authorities.
So what can be done? Ban gambling? Skirt a few basic principles of capitalism?
Bingo halls, bookmakers and casinos are not the problem in and of themselves. Often they act as a social hub for isolated and elderly members of the community.
It's also not as if institutions are ignoring the law. Staff are well-versed and practised in spotting problem gambling and in fact companies like Rank and Coral invest significant resources in training every year.
And it's a requirement to have self-exclusion leaflets displayed in foyers and in toilets - though, helpfully, problem gamblers spend next to none of their time is these areas.

So when campaigners slammed new regulations from the Gambling Commission, warning that they will be ineffectual, I couldn't help but agree with them.
Bookmakers will have to conduct local area risk assessments to explain how they are going to mitigate crime and the effect on vulnerable people. Significantly, they will have to share information on problem gamblers who have self-excluded - which means gamblers will only have to exclude themselves once to be blocked from shops in an area.
But the new regulations keep the issue of identifying problem gamblers within the industry and therein lies the problem. There needs to be state intervention.
It is not enough that individuals be given fair opportunity to self-exclude. Government has a proactive responsibility to ensure businesses do not take advantage of vulnerable people. Bars have the authority to eject patrons who have had too much to drink; such people provide visible signs of addiction and can also pose a threat to staff and other customers.
Meanwhile problem gamblers are knowingly allowed to continue spending, as is their right.
But here are a few simple suggestions.
  • Clocks on the walls should be mandatory.
  • More rigorous and regular inspections by the Gambling Commission, which should include time spent on the floor of establishments for the entirety of their operational hours.
  • Self-exclusion literature should be placed in arcades next to fixed-odds betting terminals. Machines themselves are required to be branded with things like class and percentage payout. Self-exclusion should also be advertised on the machines. Tobacco products and alcohol bottles have health warnings - betting machines should be no different.
  • Councils should seek to minimise the number of businesses granted licensing permission in their areas.
Don't mistake me for a killjoy. I get the appeal of gambling. Bingo can be a fun day out, a place to meet and make new friends. For those who can enjoy it as a social occasion, bingo is as harmful as the caffeine in your cup of tea and the jangling nerves as you hope no one shouts "full house" before you.
But for some, bingo halls are dealers of a fix, one that is no less compulsive, no less harmful for our failure to take it as seriously as dependency on drugs or alcohol. Problem gamblers need help from the industry which has profited from their illness.
And if the sector refuses to take more responsibility it falls to government to tell them their number's up.
Comment by Mary McCool, a digital journalist at STV. You can contact her at

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