The Crack Cocaine of Gambling? Gambling Machines in the UK

Evidence shows moral panic at gaming machines ill-founded

Executive summary

  • This paper assesses the claims made about gambling machines in British betting shops, in particular ‘fixed-odds betting terminals’. These machines are routinely dubbed ‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ and it is said that players can lose £18,000 in an hour. They are blamed for a rise in problem gambling and it is alleged that Britons lose £42 billion on the machines every year. It is also claimed that betting shops have proliferated as bookmakers scramble to cash in on the popularity of the machines.
  • The ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ label has been attached to virtually every new gambling product since the late-1980s. It is never attributed to any named individual and is akin to anti-gambling folklore. Such rhetoric is used by campaigners to attract media attention.
  • The number of betting shops in Britain began to decline in the late 1960s and reached an all-time low at the turn of the century. Since then, there has been a slight resurgence, with numbers rising by 4.5 per cent between 2000 and 2012. These figures are not consistent with the claim that there has been a ‘dramatic proliferation’ of betting shops. Contrary to popular belief, the bookmaking industry’s gross gambling yield has fallen slightly in recent years.
  • There is some anecdotal evidence that there is ‘clustering’ of betting shops in areas where the four machine limit is insufficient to meet demand. Insofar as this oversupply of betting shops is an issue, it can best be addressed by raising the limit.      
  • Existing evidence does not support the claim that fixed-odds betting terminals have led to a nationwide rise in problem gambling, nor do the data suggest that these machines are uniquely ‘addictive’ or seductive.
  • The campaign against virtual gaming machines in betting shops closely resembles previous moral panics about new gambling products. The reliance on anecdotal evidence, well-worn rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims about ‘addiction’ is characteristic of similar panics which were subsequently abandoned when it became clear that the new activity was neither especially pernicious nor particularly contagious.
  •  Like other parts of the gambling sector, the bookmaking industry has responded to the market shifting towards virtual gaming. Opponents of fixed-odds betting terminals are aware than a severe reduction in stakes and prizes would reduce consumer appeal and amount to a de facto ban. Over-regulation would push customers to the less regulated online market and would probably lead to a surge in the black market. This would have a detrimental impact on employment in the industry and would significantly reduce tax revenue. Better regulation of the domestic gambling industry should focus on providing greater flexibility for new technology and larger stakes and prizes for venues which are higher up