The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Lives on the Line

- How the Gambling Industry Targets the Poor


Graeme McIver looks at the gambling industry in the UK and how it has targeted the poorest and most deprived areas of our towns and cities.




'In gambling the many must lose in order that the few may win'

George Bernard Shaw


The Changing Face of Our High Street

The news that the credit ratings agency Moody’s has decided to downgrade Britain’s triple A credit rating will not have come as a surprise to anyone who cares to take more than a cursory glance at economic performance of the UK. As the ConDems swing the axe even deeper into living standards, the knock on effect on retail sales and High Street performance further highlights that the crisis in 21st century capitalism continues apace.


We are only two months into a new year but we have already witnessed the demise of more household names on the High Street as Blockbuster, Jessops and entertainment giants HMV have succumbed like scores of other instantly recognisable brands before them. The list is incredible…Comet, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Game, Borders, Barratts, Alexon, T J Hughes, Jane Norman, Habitat, Focus DIY, Floors-2-Go, the Officers Club, Oddbins, Ethel Austin, Faith Shoes, Adams Childrenswear, Thirst Quench, Stylo, Mosaic, Principles, Sofa Workshop, Allied Carpets, Viyella, Dewhursts, Woolworths, MFI, and Zavvi/Virgin Megastore have all gone to the wall since the crisis began in 2008.



Industry experts predict that plenty more businesses will follow. Begbie Traynor, an insolvency firm reported at the end of 2012 that it included 140 retailers on a “critical watch list.” The company’s research also found that a further 13,700 retailers were experiencing ‘significant’ distress in the 11 weeks to December 17, 2012. Analysis from The Local Data Company released this week shows that the larger High Street chains are closing 20 stores a week. EE, the UK’s largest mobile phone operator announced in January that it plans to close 78 high street stores across the UK whilst independent shops and small businesses in towns and cities across the country continue to close at a record rate. Competition from the big supermarkets and out of town shopping developments has been the death knell of many traditional high street businesses and shops.

In the midst of all this carnage there are some success stories, but the type of businesses that are thriving and succeeding tell us much about the type of society being created by relentless cuts in the living standards of ordinary people .

The Local Data Company’s report produced a league table of the winners and losers on the High Street. Suffering the most were computer games retailers (down 45%), health food shops (-24.7%), card shops (-23.4%) recruitment agencies, clothes retailers, banks and other financial institutions. The most successful growth areas of the High Street makes interesting but not unsurprising reading. Payday Loan companies saw a 20% increase in the number of shops opened along with pawnbrokers (+13%), Pound shops (+13%), with supermarkets, charity shops and bookies completing the list.

Austerity has created a new type of High Street and Shopping Centre especially in the poorest parts of our towns and cities. The proliferation of payday loan companies, pound shops and bookmakers maybe the norm in parts of Glasgow, Manchester and Middlesbrough but they are yet to make much of an impact on the streets of Windsor.

The relatively recent rise of Payday loan companies preying on the vulnerable and hard pressed deserves separate and thorough examination. In this article however I wish to concentrate on the growth of bookmakers and gambling in its many different forms and in particularly how the betting industry have targeted the areas of highest deprivation in order to increase profit.


Gambling – addiction or compulsion?

Figures from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) show that 73% of adult Britons participate in at least one form of gambling each week. The BGPS 2010 report has been the third nationally representative survey of participation in gambling and the prevalence of problem gambling in Great Britain. It builds on the two previous surveys conducted in 1999 and 2007, providing a valuable basis for understanding the way people gamble in Britain.

It is estimated that there are in the region of just under half a million problem gamblers in the UK although research is no where near as extensive as similar investigations into other social problems such as drug or alcohol addiction and abuse. The BGPS also suggests that a further 3.5 million are considered to be “at risk” of developing gambling addiction problems. Whilst each year millions of pounds are spent on treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, only a fraction of the cost is expended on those addicted to gambling. Future BGPS surveys themselves are at risk after funding was slashed by the Government.

Medical journalist and broadcaster Dr Trisha Macnair describes the effects of gambling addiction on the BBC website;


Experts mostly view the effects of gambling as an addiction to an altered psychological state. It's thought to be similar to the effects of stimulant drugs with feelings of thrill and excitement linked to risk taking, inducing a natural high. Research suggests that these sensations are related to increases in levels of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline in the brain. With time, the gambler becomes increasingly preoccupied with their habit, as do many drug addicts. They often feel the need to increase to size of their bet to get the same psychological effect, and struggle to control or stop their behaviour.”


Interviewed in the Guardian in April  last year, founder, of the NHS National Problem Gambling Clinic in London, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones argued gambling should be considered a “fully fledged addiction rather than a mere compulsion.”


"It's difficult for people to understand the severity of the illness unless they come into contact with patients. We have 2,000 files of people who have been referred to us. For example, they have lost their home, or their parents' home, through gambling…many of them have broken marriages and have been separated from their children, lost their jobs or ended up in prison because of the gambling."


Dr Bowden-Jones described how prisoners had been in touch with the clinic “begging for treatment” on the day of their release.


"Illegal activities among our patients are quite high. These are people who have an addiction and then steal money because they want to fund more gambling. The statistics are quite high – 40%, 50% of gamblers have committed illegal acts…I really believe one of the things we should be doing, which we've started at the clinic, is to educate the criminal justice system to the fact that this is an illness and it needs to be taken into account when people end up in court."




Kevin Twaddle is a former Scottish professional footballer. A self-confessed gambling addict, Twaddle has written a book entitled, “Life on the Line” where he describes how he used money from wages and signing on fees from clubs such as Hearts, St Johnstone and Motherwell to fund his habit. He tells the story of how he spent in excess of one million pounds on betting before the money ran out. He then stole from friends and closest family and considered turning to crime as his life spiraled out of control. In a brutally honest book he describes how close he came to taking his own life. Writing in the foreword, fellow ex-pro and recovering alcoholic and gambling addict Paul Merson said;


Of all the addictions I have seen, I would say gambling is by far the hardest to overcome, as it is the only one where you don’t have to put anything in your body. If you want to get drunk you need to drink alcohol. If you want to get high, you need to take drugs. With gambling you don’t need to take anything because that addiction is already inside you. Gambling is also different because it is almost impossible to uncover. When I was drinking a lot and I had been out all night, the manager and coaching staff would know because they would see the state of me and smell the drink. It would be the same with drugs, but if I had been betting all night then nobody would have the first clue because it is a more hidden addiction.”


Gambling addiction is not just a problem for the individual; it also has a knock on effect into our communities. There are many social consequences including family break ups, bankruptcy, crime and imprisonment, suicide, ill health, loss of employment and domestic violence to name but a few. Bills don’t get paid, homes are repossessed and children go without food and clothes.

Children and young people don’t just suffer the consequences of their parents or guardians addiction, they can become addicts too. Giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee in 2011, GamCare, an industry funded body providing support for addicts reported that their figures showed that up to 2% of 12 to 15 year old children are addicted to gambling.

It is clear that funding is urgently required in order to promote research into the extent of the problem, education and recovery projects to help the addicted as well as money to deal with the social consequences. With Government support being reduced the gambling industry in the UK has committed £5million pounds towards these aims. This may seem like a reasonable amount of money from an industry with a social conscience. The fact is however that in the year 2010/2011 the industry made a profit of £5.5 billion, therefore the money pledged by the industry represents just 0.001% of all profits.


The UK’s Gambling Habits

The fact that the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) reports that 73% of adults in the UK participated in gambling may be a surprise to people. A significant part of this figure however is made up of those purchasing National Lottery tickets and scratchcards. Last year saw a 12% increase in the number of tickets sold. Since its inception the lottery has been dubbed as a tax on the poor. Camelot announced in January that from later this year the price of a single ticket will double to £2.00. The operators have judged that people will pay the increase rather than give up their chance to become jackpot winners. This 100% rise adds a burden onto the already hard pushed millions of low paid and unemployed people playing the game in the vain hope that it could be them that becomes the next lotto millionaire. The chances of such a feat are 1 in 14 million yet the idea that you have to be in it to win it ensures that people continue to buy tickets. It is not just the National Lottery that attracts huge numbers of players. Players of Euro Millions and lottery games from other countries also make up a significant percentage of gamblers from the UK.



Scratchcard sales are also booming. Figures from Camelot reveal that just short of £1 billion was spent on the cards in the UK in the 6 months leading up to September 2012. (This figure has risen from £817 million for the same time period in 2011.) The lottery provider has come under fire from campaign groups who claim that the marketing strategy of scratch cards has been deliberately aimed at a much younger demographic. It is illegal for outlets to sell the cards to anyone under the age of 16, however an industry study from 2006 showed that one in five children aged 12 years had played National Lottery scratch cards. It is doubtful that many of those purchasing lottery tickets or scratchcards would define them selves as gamblers. The same goes for those attending bingo, the only form of gambling in the survey where the participation of females outstrips that of males. A night at the bingo is seen by the majority of those attending as a social pastime incomparable with spending the day in a bookies or a casino. Yet once again the spread and participation levels of bingo are linked to social factors such as poverty and deprivation. Bingo players traditionally come from an older demographic but that pattern has begun to change since the start of the economic crisis.  It is the idea of winning money to help alleviate day to day pressures that is as much as a driving force as the chance for a gossip and a catch up with friends.

The BGPS report goes on to detail the breakdown of the nation’s gambling habits;


Excluding those who had only gambled on the National Lottery Draw, 56% of adults participated in some other form of gambling in the past year. Comparable estimates for 1999 and 2007 were 46% and 48%. This highlights a significant increase in past year participation on other gambling activities, such as an increase in betting on other events i.e., events other than horse races or dog races with a bookmaker (3% in 1999, 9% in 2010), buying scratchcards (20% in 2007, 24% in 2010), buying other lotteries tickets (8% in 1999, 25% in 2010), gambling online on poker, bingo, casino and slot machine style games (3% in 2007, 5% in 2010) and gambling on fixed odds betting terminals (3% in 2007, 4% in 2010).


Only one activity showed a large decrease in popularity between survey years. This was football pools (4% in 2010, 9% in 1999). There were some small but significant decreases in the popularity of slot machines (13% in 2010, 14% in 2007 and 1999) and online betting (4% in 2007, 3% in 2010). For all other gambling activities, there was either no significant change between survey years or estimates varied with no clear pattern.”


The BGPS report shows conclusively that at the same time as the economy has lurched into crisis and wages and living standards have decreased, incidents of gambling have increased. These figures alone however do not show the extent to which gambling had become an increasing problem for the poor and their targeting by the big betting firms.


A Bigger Problem for the Poor

Gambling addicts come from all social backgrounds. Fyodor Dostoevsky is said to have written Crime and Punishment as a way to pay off his gambling debts. The UK’s biggest landowner The Duke of Buccleugh had an 19th century ancestor who gambled away large areas of land and the story of Kevin Twaddle shows us that high earning sports stars are capable of gambling away a fortune. However, the statistics from the BGPS survey prove that it is amongst the poorest and most deprived sections of society that gambling is a bigger problem. The report states;


“In 2010,problem gambling prevalence varied by Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and was lowest among the least deprived areas (0.6% for IMD quintiles 1 and 2) and was higher among more deprived areas, being highest among those in IMD quintile 4 (1.8%).


Problem gambling prevalence was also associated with employment status, being highest among the unemployed (3.3%) and the other’ group (4.6%) and lowest among those who were retired (0.1%) and those looking after family/home (0.5%).


Finally, in 2010, problem gambling prevalence was significantly higher among groups with increasingly severe money problems. Prevalence was lowest among those with no money problems (0.5%) and highest among those with very severe money problems (6.1%).


In 1999 and 2007, there was an association between problem gambling prevalence and educational achievement. Respondents whose highest level of educational attainment were ‘A’ levels or below were more likely to be problem gamblers than those who had professional or degree level qualifications.”


The Rise of the Betting Shop in Areas of Deprivation

In 2005, the then Labour Government introduced the The Gambling Act 2005 that was designed to control all forms of gambling in the UK. One of its consequences has been the explosion of the number of betting shops in socially deprived areas. In August 2012, former Government minister Harriet Harman told Channel 4’s Dispatches programme that the act had been a ‘mistake' and the consequences are ‘ruining the High Street and people's lives'.



The act classed betting shops in the same category as estate agents, banks and other financial services. This meant that bookmakers could move into premises vacated by the failing finance sector without having to apply for planning permission leading to an explosion of new betting shops primarily in areas of deprivation, poverty and high unemployment.

Areas of London worst affected by the riots of 2011 have seen a propagation of new bookmakers shops. In the East London Burgh of Hackney there are 43 bookmakers shops with 8 in one street alone. The Labour MP David Lammy’s Tottenham constituency is particularly blighted by the proliferation of bookies. He has claimed that betting shops;


 “completely change the look and feel of the area…They attract small crowds of men that smoke and drink on the pavement outside, which can be an intimidating sight for many of my constituents. Other businesses suffer as they see their footfall reduced and prospective businesses look elsewhere to set up.”


The Community union which represents workers in the gambling sector carried out research confirming that between 2005 and 2011 violent incidents in the capitals bookmaker shops increased by 150%.

But what makes these poorer areas more appealing to the gambling industry?

Into these new shops the major bookmakers have introduced a relatively new form of gambling device, the Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) dubbed by many as the “crack cocaine” of the betting industry. There are thought to be in excess of 30,000 machines across the UK.



During their Dispatches investigation, Channel 4 discovered that in 2011 British punters lost over £1 billion on FOBT machines. These virtual roulette machines allow punters to bet up to £100 every 20 seconds. The programme estimates that problem gamblers lose more on these machines than they lose on horses, dogs and casinos combined. Dispatches stated;


“You can stake up to £18,000 an hour, from early morning till late at night, right on your High Street. Ten years ago these machines didn't really exist in Britain. Back in 2005 Tony Blair's New Labour government met stiff opposition with attempts to introduce super casinos. When Gordon Brown came in he almost immediately ditched the idea but kept the rest of the new Gambling Act including measures making it easier to open new betting shops. Since then FOBT machines have become a real money spinner for the betting shops with each machine bringing in on average £780 a week. Channel 4 Dispatches estimate that William Hill nets £416 million a year from FOBT machines, Ladbrokes £359 million; Paddy Power £41 million; and Coral £290 million.”


The Gambling Act currently restricts the number of FOBT terminals per shop to four. Given they are the goose that lay the golden egg for the major chains it is no surprise that they attempt to open as many stores as possible in an area in order to get as many machines into play as possible. The trade union Community has stated;


“We have shops that open at 8am and don’t close until 10pm. This has nothing to do with football betting or horse racing – it’s just to keep the machines open and running as long as possible.”


Jim Orford from the University of Birmingham is an expert on gambling problems. He has helped launch a campaign group called Gambling Watch UK. In April 2012 he told the Guardian newspaper;


"The kind of games you play on them are not your old fruit machine games – these are casino-type games of a kind that used to be confined to casinos. Now, here they are on the high street. By their very nature, I'm not surprised they combine all the features you would expect that make gambling particularly dangerous.”


Research carried out by The Gambling Prevalence Survey found that the major chains saw an opportunity to maximise profits in places where the FOBT machines were most successful. Namely areas of multiple deprivation where predominantly young unemployed and low paid males were the most frequent gamblers.

Retail experts refer to these areas as a “DE” demographic. That is areas with high unemployment, low paid manual workers and those in casual employment. Whilst most other retailers avoid these areas the gambling industry has targeted DE demographic areas for expansion.

In a bid to stop the clustering of bookmakers the Government is considering allowing existing shops to increase the numbers of FOBTs allowed. Campaigners however have warned against the dangers of bookies containing many more of these highly addictive forms of gambling machine.

The industry also looks set to get around any problems associated with limits on the numbers of terminals controlled by statute. Home computers, lap tops, ipads, mobile phones and other devices that connect to the internet mean that the industry can make each and every one of these device a FOBT of its own. The future of gambling will come from people betting huge sums from home rather than have to visit a bookmakers shop at all.



A perfect storm of circumstances have created the conditions that have allowed gambling companies to seize the chance to boost profitability whilst simultaneously  increasing the misery for those blighted by addiction problems.

The financial crisis coupled with deregulation of the gambling industry has led to the increased demand for their product from a section of society desperate to escape its economic constraints. At the same time as unemployment has risen, living standards fallen and instability and uncertainty increased then gambling has never been more accessible or attractive.

Open a newspaper or magazine, visit a website, walk down your High Street or watch sport on television and you are bombarded with advertising and pop ups encouraging you to make a bet, spin the wheel, buy a ticket or scratch your way to a fortune.

Jim Orford from Gambling Watch UK says;


“As a country we were really quite restrained about gambling. It wasn't advertised, it wasn't encouraged – it was a bit of a dirty word among most people. Then the national lottery came and made a difference. It got gambling advertised in a big way, and all the other gambling firms got together and asked for a level playing field so they could be advertised themselves. I think there has been an enormous rise in gambling and an enormous rise in the accessibility. Attitudes are changing slowly and we really should be worried about it."

The industry claims that there is nothing wrong with having a little flutter. That is true. Betting on the Cup Final, the Derby or Wimbledon can be an enjoyable pastime. Millions of working class people play the lottery, enjoy a night at the bingo, have a bet on the horses, dogs or football and suffer no ill effects. But it is not these punters that the industry targets or relies on for their huge profits.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism carried our research into betting patterns in inner city Green Lanes in Haringey in London. An article published by them in July 2012 stated;


“In a way, betting shops are more akin to coffee shops than retailers: like a latte, having a flutter is a treat that doesn’t have to cost a couple of pounds. But it’s noticeable that there is no Starbucks, Costa or Caffe Nero on Green Lanes. Instead, there are two branches of Ladbrokes, two William Hills, a Betfred, a Coral, and two smaller outfits, Metrobet and Jennings Bet. Another Coral is a few metres away on a side street. By comparison, wealthy Hampstead High Street, a couple of miles to the west, has a solitary William Hill.”

The leading gambling firms in the UK have deliberated targeted the poorest sections of society in order to generate vast profits yet take no responsibility for the social consequences of their actions.

The industry needs much tougher controls and regulations. They need to be forced into footing the bill for research, education and rehabilitation programmes. Councils need the powers to prevent the clustering of bookmakers outlets in our poorest areas and advertising needs to be more strictly regulated and controlled. More importantly their enormous profits need to be taxed at a much higher level with the money used to regenerate the areas they seek to exploit and abuse.

The gambling lobby is incredibly wealthy and powerful and will resist any measures to reform or increase taxation on the sector. Do any of the major parties possess the political determination to take them on?

I wouldn’t bet on it.



Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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