Betting or Gambling?

Betting or gambling? The two often overlap, but essentially there is a difference.

If you bet on something you are calculating odds. You’re using attention to form, your experience, a set of skills. Sometimes, of course, if ‘attractive’ odds on an event are offered you may take a gamble: though probability is against your winning, it’s not by any means impossible. People who bet once a year on the Grand National very often are simply gambling. They may pick a horse for its name, they’re not using the skills of a seasond bettor.

Buying a single National Lottery ticket is a gamble always (with odds of 45 million to one). There is no way of using skills to predict the result. While there are professional gamblers who use complex probability odds, for most of us a spin on a roulette wheel will produce a random result. There are various gamblers’ fallacies such as a near win suggests you are getting close to winning, or a number that has not come up for ages must be due soon. These fallacies ignore the fact that every spin is random. Each new spin has an equal chance of the ball landing on any number.

As said, the distinction between gambling and betting is blurred often. You can bet on the winners, losers or draws in six football matches but if you are predicting the actual scores you’re taking something of a gamble. (Though, currently, betting that Manchester City will beat Bournemouth 6-1 is a reasonable bet).

In the past, bookmakers’ premises were solely for betting. Although we still call them betting shops, punters have been introduced to a wide range of gambling as well as betting. There are ‘virtual’ horse races, for instance, screen displays of digitally designed ‘races’ (not totally dissimillar to those ‘derby’ races we played in amusement arcades).

The most controversial gambling products are Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, and the controversies are well known, explained on this site and in the posts. The most popular game on them is roulette, and they offer similar random odds. The difference between casino roulette and the achines is that the latter are designed for fast play, staking every 20 seconds if desired, and, critics suggest, with features as well as speed to entice players into a ‘zone’ where rational control is severely diminished. On a point of language, they are not betting machines and should rightly be called Fixed Odss Gambling Machines.

Outside the bookies, there is a growing normalisation of gambling and betting opportuniities. Many are concerned that the majority of these use consumers’ own digital devices such as smartphones. Saturation advertising on television and social media, it is felt, encourage ‘convenience’ gambling and betting. There is particular concern about the confluence of opportunities, promotion and normalisation upon young people, including children, whose social learning is sensitive to the environment. It is now easy to gamble on a fruit machine with children’s cartoon characters, or on a roulette wheel, 24 hours a day.

There are those who suggest that this is scaremongering, that individuals have choice and forms of betting or gambling are irrelevant. Probably the future for society comes down to policy makers betting on the risks, and gambling on kids’ wellbeing.

 

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What’s all this Fuss about FOBTs?

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“What’s all the fuss about fixed odds betting terminals?” some people ask. It’s not uncommon to hear people say things like, “Well no one forces them to play.”

Others campaign fiercely to call for the machines to be banned completely or at least be very heavily regulated. This website gives a background to the some of the debates and controversies. The site’s Facebook account is a useful archive of recent items from research, the media and other sources.

If you haven’t heard of fixed odds betting terminals (or FOBTs) and are unaware of the issues you won’t be alone, despite massive media coverage in recent years. Bottom line claims that the machines found in high street bookmakers are addictive, unethical and dangerous pass under the radar probably for most people. After all, there are hundred of issues that people do not know or care about: humanitarian crises, wars, refugee displacement, famines; in the UK, poverty, homelessness, inadequate mental health services, misery caused by austerity and universal credit, women’s pension right – the list goes on.

This post focuses on just a few aspects of the FOBT debate and suggests reasons why it is an important social and political issue.

Fixed odds betting terminals are not betting machines at all. They are gambling machines. The most popular ‘game’ is roulette and each spin is unconnected to other spins. The fact that the machines allow £100 stakes every 20 seconds is one of the major causes of concern. An other is that the design of the machines, and the speed of play is itself the key factor in making them addictive.

Among those to speak out against them in the last week are the generally right wing ‘think tank, Res Publica and the conservative-leaning columnist Melanie Phillips who describes them as ‘wicked’. This is significant because generally conservative attitudes include a strong emphasis on personal responsibility, business freedom and minimal state intervention.

There are those outside the betting industry who consider the storms of anger against FOBTs as coming from  no more than ‘middle class do-gooders’ who are ‘jumping on a bandwagon’. Typical of these commentaors are the ‘libertarians’ Brendan O’Neill and Chrisopher Snowdon. There is also a strong narrative from the industry and its supporters that the campaign against FOBTs is the result of commercial competitors seeking to damage their rivals. The campaign ‘Stop the FOBTs’ is led by a millionaire who has made his fortune in gambling industries, and he is often the target of attack.

The ‘debate’ often appears as little more than a slanging match. Headlines and soundbites manifest polarised standpoints and drown out any more thoughtful discussion. There is, though, a lesser noticed side to the issue which is very significant. There are people who genuinely wonder what the ‘fuss’ is about. Often gamblers or betters themselves, or in recovery, they argue that so much attention to FOBTs is pointless since gambling problems have always existed and always will, that a gambling addiction is totally independent of any particular method of gambling, that people will always find a way to become addicted even if FOBTs were completely removed. Some of them point out too that exclusive focus on FOBTs diverts attention from much broader, serious and deep-rooted structural developments in gambling and betting industries.

And they are right in most of what they say. Except that nobody involved in campaigning against FOBTs believes that successful outcomes will remove gambling problems in general. There are many campaigners who are ‘ordinary’ individuals who have been badly hurt, sometimes ruined, sometimes on the verge of suicide, who bet and gambled normally until they were introduced to the machines, whose addictions to FOBTs is very specific. They bet and gambled normally until they were introduced to the machines. Becoming familiar with research to back them up, they point to evidence that the machines have addictive qualities, are dangerous, and deserve their popular epithet as ‘the crack cocaine’ of gambling. Such ‘hard gambling’, they argue, should be in casinos, not on the high street.

Succeeding in restricting the supply of cheap, high strength alcohol will not make a significant reduction in problem drinking. But it will be a statement. Similarly, the attention to FOBTs is the focus of general concerns about developments in gambling and betting, the weekly increasing markets, the television advertising, and most of all the alarming dangers of online gambling. The latter, conducted on home digital devices such as smartphones, reflects almost precisely the most dangerous aspects of addictive betting shop machines, it is claimed. The same fast speed stakes, the same features no coupled with enticements of ‘free bets’, and as a Sunday Times front page recently highlighted, a potential targeting of children.

As we await the Government’s triennial review on gambling when it is expected that action of some sort will be taken on FOBTs, perhaps no more than reducing the maximum stake to £20 or £30 (campaigners have demanded £2), it’s important to remember that in addition to addressing the harms of FOBTs, beneath this are much bigger stakes.

 

 

 

Addiction and Personal Responsibility

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OF ALL the many terrible attributes of addiction one which can be the most painful is being not understood and being blamed for one’s own misfortune. Stigma against all mental health problems abounds in our society. It can heap on an ill person the vicious taunts of those who state or imply that she or he is worthless, scum, a moral weakling, something unclean. Indeed an addict is weak but not in those ways. More weak in the way that anyone who is ill becomes weak. Bullies, of course, choose weak and vulnerable people as their targets.

Imagine giving someone with an alcohol problem a bottle of whiskey as a present. Then imagine that the person who drinks the stuff becomes very ill, maybe even dies. Then the fool who gave them the alcohol says in defence, “Well, they didn’t have to drink it. I didn’t make them. They could have given it to the local church as a prize in their raffle.”

It is unfeasible to think that substances like alcohol or other drugs will ever go away, and addiction is likely to always be a problem. But to deliberately and knowingly provide someone who is the vulnerable state of addiction with a product that is deadly to them, while not illegal, is morally reprehensible. The fact that you cannot stop the production and distribution of alcohol and other hard drugs does not remove your responsibility, your moral responsibility, to do whatever you can to limit access by those in danger. Any decent person would surely be appalled if just that was being done by high street business brands.

The very nature of addiction is that it robs a person, disowns them, of their power of responsibility. It literally embeds neural pathways which disrupt inhibition while enhancing compulsive excitation circuits. There are thousands of research studies about the nature of addiction, but those in recent years which use brain scanning are pointing more and more to precise neural substrates which are involved. Whether addiction is ’caused’ by social factors, adverse childhood experiences, culture, experiential learning, genetics or some combination of these is not the point: the result is the same.

While the good news is that many, probably the majority, of people with addiction can and do recover – often with no support from agencies or health providers – the fact is inescapable that people who are totally at any given time pierced by addiction are vulnerable to exploitation. To say that society should provide opportunities for individual recovery is a good thing. But it is a very bad thing for society to turn its back on the merest whiff of business or industry deliberately exploiting human misery. It is the responsibility of every citizen to fight such evils.

How prevalent is addiction?

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Following on from the previous post, our coffee discussion turned to the prevalence of addiction in the UK. We were both coming from a belief that it reveals an astonishingly large number of people in trouble. We believe it is a massive social problem that is not getting the attention it requires.

Later reflection considers the following:

  • There is a problem understanding what may be referred to as addiction. There is a very large number of people whose addictions have resulted in actual or potential life ruin involving finance, employment, social status, relationship breakdowns, a range of severe physical and metal health problems, and death.
  • However, there are many more cases where people are nearing these severe states. There are many whose drinking or other substance dependence are working slowly to take years off their lives. Nicotine addiction is an an obvious case. This applies to behavioural addictions such as gambling also, and statistics for these groups are hard to achieve if at all.
  • Unknown numbers of people are addicted to over the counter painkillers or prescribed medicines. Unknown again is the number of people illegally ordering prescription only addictive medication online.
  • There is a range of other addictions which are now taken seriously by researchers and treatment providers such as eating disorders, sex addiction and internet addictions.
  • Many ‘normal’ behaviours share characteristically common features of addictions. Compulsive shopping, perfectionism, workaholism for instance have similar neural substrates to all addictions.
  • A research paper has suggested that 47% of Americans are addicts in some sense.
  • Statistics for all addictions taken together in the UK are hard to come by. Limited statistics are available separately, e.g. for alcohol, opiates, marijuana (usually treated as psychological dependence),  gambling, amphetamines, heroin, cocaine.
  • It is extremely difficult to gather statistics. Since many addictions are to illegal substances and do not get reflected in medical interventions for instance, the true scale of actual addictions to a substance or behaviour can only be estimated.
  • Nevertheless, what figures there are contribute to an understanding of the prevalence of addiction. 9% of men and 4% of women are dependent upon alcohol. In Scotland there are 50% higher rates. The Gambling Commission also reflects geographical variation:

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  • Such figures cannot disclose current trends nor the breakdown of specifics of for instance, types of alcohol behaviour, methods of gambling. As for gambling, since it is increasingly done at home using online technology, only sources such as publicised personal catastrophes, some suicides, treatment statistics are available. The stigma associated with addiction is that even many severe cases will be attributed to financial ruin or depression etc.
  • For every addict at the extreme negative end of the spectrum, many more people will be affected, especially children and families. The problems of addiction therefore affect very large swathes of the population.
  • Besides the immense personal costs and suffering, society as a whole spends many billions of pounds because of addiction. These costs relate to health, crime, lost productivity and the welfare bill.
  • We aren’t remotely expert or knowledgeable but believe the true rate of addiction is extremely high. It needs much more urgent focus by policy makers across government services and within government, especially:
  1. Researching and acknowledging the scale of the issue as a whole rather than by reference to particular addictions.
  2. Identifying social, environmental, business contributions to addiction and curtailing them. For instance, prohibiting products designed to entice vulnerable people or induce people towards addictive behaviour, such as fixed odds betting terminals, advertising, online design; minimum unit pricing for alcohol.
  3. Raising awareness among professionals and ancillaries; ensuring destigmatisation among support providers and workers.
  4. Not allowing loss of government revenues to be used as an excuse to prevent public harm.
  5. Acknowledge once and for all that addictions represent one of the nation’s main mental health disorders. Integrate metal health services, educate staff, resource much greater treatment provision.
  6. Roll out public health promotion and advertising.
  7. Rethink drugs policy. Seek best practices globally for decriminalisation or legalisation. Emphasise treatment over punishment.
  8. Immediately produce policies and strategies to support the many people who suffer dual diagnosis disorders.

Fixed odds betting online and on the high street

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An article in The Guardian argues that the age old distinction between gaming and betting has been eroded by the advent of digital gambling machines in high street bookmakers and online. Many people who enjoy or provide betting are upset that an element of skill and genuine odds based on probabilities of outcome are taken away by fixed odds machines.

 

If Lionel Messi gets injured in the warm-up, for instance, the odds about a Barcelona win will immediately start to drift. And because the odds fluctuate and come down to a matter of judgment, shrewd gamblers – and there are plenty – can make a longterm profit from their betting.

In gaming, the odds are fixed, because the chance of every possible outcome is known, and also fixed. The maths which governs the payouts and probabilities is as immutable and well-understood as the laws of planetary motion. For as long as we live in a universe where an apple falls down and not up, no gambler can win at gaming in the long run.

For 200 years in Britain, from the birth of both bookmaking and roulette in the last decade of the 18th century until the arrival of internet gambling, betting and gaming knew their place. Betting took place on racecourses and, since the early 1960s, in high-street betting shops. Gaming was restricted to casinos. Its availability, in other words, was more tightly regulated.

The internet has changed all that, and it is betting firms, both online and on the high street, that have been doing their utmost to blur the centuries-old dividing line. The “B” in FOBT stands for “betting”, for instance, but these are gaming machines, pure and simple. The FOBTs produce guaranteed profits – an average of more than £50,000 per machine per year – and never ask for a pay rise or phone in sick.