Fintan Drury, the former chairman of Paddy Power, has lashed out at the UK government and its “troubling partnership” with the country’s gambling industry in an op-ed in The Times this week.
Drury, who fronted the Irish bookmaking giant from 2004 to 2010, described the modern gambling industry in the UK as one “unchecked by any moral code,” due to a cozy relationship with a government whose desire to boost Treasury coffers “override[s] consideration of acute social ills.”
At the heart of the matter is the country’s fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), gambling machines found in bookmakers’ shops in almost every town the UK.
FOBTs have been routinely dubbed the “crack cocaine” of betting in the press. The machines allow players to wager large up to £100 per spin on virtual casino games like roulette and have been blamed for a rise in problem gambling, antisocial behavior and crime.
Paddy Power, Drury’s former company, brings in around £93 million ($133 million) a year from FOBTs before deductions.
“Did you know that it is possible for someone to gamble £18,000 an hour playing a fixed odds betting terminal in any betting shop in Britain?” demands Drury.
“The industry does. So, to its shame, does the government but, as the estimated annual investment by gamblers on these machines runs to something like £50 billion, the benefit to the Treasury means that Whitehall [British central government administration] turns a blind eye.”
The Times recently launched a full-tilt editorial attack on the gambling industry. The UK now had over 500,000 problem gamblers, it warned. This was an “epidemic” that had become “so serious” that doctors at the National Problem Gambling Clinic had begun prescribing the drug Naltrexone, which is designed to help to combat alcohol and drug dependency, at great expense to the taxpayer.
The newspaper later acknowledged that just five people in the whole county had been prescribed the drug for gambling-related problems at a cost of £68 ($97) each for a three-month course.
The figure of 500,000, it should also be noted, does not represent an increase in the instance of problem gamblers per capita, which remains well below 1 percent of the population, at around 0.7 percent.
New Regulations not Enough
While such statistics are problematic (the definition of “problem gambling” can differ from study to study, for example, skewing results), the UK figures acknowledged by The Times are lower in comparison with many countries around the world, whose problem gambling figures often hover at around one percent of the population.
There are also studies that suggest the percentage of problem gambling actually decreased in the UK between1999 and 2012.
Despite the newspaper’s questionable figures, Drury praises the Times investigation for exposing what he sees as the government’s apparently complacent attitude to FOBTs and the damage they can cause to this small but vulnerable percentage of the population.
New regulations, which have established that anyone wishing to bet more than £50 on the machines has to seek permission from a staff member are not enough, says Drury.
“We should deal first with the curse of FOBTs,” he says. “The industry (partly in the interests of self-preservation) should lead the way and introduce some simple measures that would, at least, establish its awareness of the particular danger they pose.”