Machines Called ‘Crack Cocaine of Gambling’ Ruining Lives by the Thousands
A relatively new type of electronic gambling machine known as the fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) has become the rage among hardcore gamblers in the United Kingdom. Since 2008, UK citizens have collectively lost 8 billion pounds (the equivalent of $12 billion) playing games of chance on these digital pickpockets, which are referred to in some circles as the “crack cocaine of gambling.”
With visual displays that can cycle through a round of action in as little as 20 seconds, FOBTs offer flashy, juiced-up versions of familiar casino games. Gamblers wager from 1 to 100 pounds for each spin of the electronic roulette wheel or pull of a virtual slot machine’s handle, and they can do it over and over again at lightning speed without slowing down to calculate how much money they are actually losing. Roulette is the most popular FOBT game, and since the chances of winning on any particular spin are no more than 5 percent, it usually doesn’t take long for enthusiastic players to lose their shirts.
Over the last seven years, a few thousand of these casino video game machines have been installed at gambling venues across the United Kingdom. So far, they have proven to be astoundingly profitable, much to the delight of the British gambling industry and much to the dismay of public officials across the land. FOBTs are creating gambling addicts just as rapidly as they are depleting bank accounts, and the human cost of their depredations is proving to be immense.
Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals Conquer Scotland, Northern Ireland
Gamblers in Northern Ireland bet more than a half-a-billion pounds on FOBT games in 2014, while Scottish players sank almost 160 million of their hard-earned cash into these merciless electronic money pits. Gambling addicts are believed to account for 25 percent to 30 percent of these losses, and with the possibility of stringing together a series of 100-pound bets in sequence, it has never been easier for pathological gamblers to lose their pensions, their savings or their kids’ college funds in a heartbeat.
Surprisingly, reformers in these two beleaguered nations are not attempting to have FOBT machines banned, perhaps believing that such a goal is unrealistic. Instead, addiction experts, nonprofit groups and government authorities are pushing for strict limits on the amount of money gamblers playing FOBT games are able to wager at any one time. Current proposals are requesting dramatic decreases in game maximums, down from 100 pounds per bet to just 2—which of course is being resisted by the Association of British Bookmakers, the trade organization that represents the UK gambling interests.
The connections between big gambling money and politics in Great Britain are murky, so it is not clear if campaigners for reform have a great chance for success. Given how widespread the outrage is over the proliferation of FOBT machines, however, some type of compromise between the status quo and the 2-pound-per-play movement seems likely.
And new developments in Scotland may be a sign that significant change is imminent. While the anti-FOBT campaign remains focused on betting restrictions, the Scottish Parliament is apparently not satisfied that this goes far enough. Last autumn it passed a law that would grant it the authority to limit the number of digital gambling machines available on Scottish territory. This law still needs to be ratified by the UK Parliament, but if it is, Scotland will be the first nation in the United Kingdom to take direct action against the FOBT industry.
Gambling Addiction Is Not Voluntary
Possibly to head off the threat of further regulation, the Association of British Bookmakers has already taken some action. It has introduced a program that allows FOBT gamblers to set their own limits on the amount of time they will play and the quantity of money they will be able to bet during any one sitting. Gambling industry spokespersons claim this initiative has been successful and that 85 percent of gamblers who sign up are staying within their voluntarily chosen limits.
But people who worry enough about their gambling to set up such parameters are not the ones who have a serious problem. Pathological gamblers are too far gone to practice self-restraint and could not be trusted to keep pledges to stop gambling even if they made them.
Meanwhile, the “crack cocaine of gambling” remains largely confined to the United Kingdom. But these machines have proven so popular and so profitable that it seems to be only a matter of time before FOBT gaming spreads far and wide.