Gambling: Has public opinion shifted?

Amol Rajan
Media editor
@amolrajanBBCon Twitter

media captionGambling changes: The tension between big business and protecting the vulnerable

Like every other industry, gambling has been radically transformed by technology. The advent of smartphones has made gambling much easier, more convenient, and constantly present than it was before.

For centuries, gambling was for the most part an activity or habit that you had to move towards. Now, thanks to the internet, the gambling comes to you.

This has legal and regulatory implications, clearly, and is one of the reasons today's review has been published.

It looks at two areas: Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), and advertising around gambling. On the former, I suspect the threshold for maximum stakes that can be bid will be reduced.

The gambling industry doesn't like the idea of it dipping below £50; campaigners want it to fall to £2. That leaves plenty of space for a fudge, or rather, a compromise, as MPs who are being heavily lobbied like to call these things.

On the advertising side, I spoke last week to Guy Parker, the boss of the Advertising Standards Authority. He has recently hit several big firms with tough rulings, and I got the impression he thinks there may be more to come.

image copyrightGetty Images

It is clear that many gambling firms are producing online advertisements, and indeed products, whose bright colours and pulsing signs appeal to children. Some of them even have cartoon-ish qualities.

But as Richard Flint, the CEO of Sky Betting and Gaming (which is now majority owned by private equity giant CVC), told me in Leeds, a bet by a child is a wasted bet, from the point of view of the industry. Any winnings will have to be returned, and the bets made are likely to be small, with potential reputational damage.

So this is a complicated area, in which different companies are obtaining different ethical standards, the technology is evolving very quickly, and regulation is struggling to keep up.

Moreover, it is dangerous to reduce the debate of FOBTs to one about economics: how much is raised in tax revenue; potential job losses; the impact on our high streets and so on.

image captionSky Betting and Gaming boss Richard Flint says bets placed by children are "wasted" and have to be returned

It is also a question of philosophy or, if you like, principle.

In a free or liberal society, is it reasonable to let fully informed adults of sound mind make their own decisions about how to spend - and yes, waste - their money?

Perhaps it is; but the point at which this becomes intolerable is, to invoke the philosophical trip-wire of John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle, the moment at which this freedom harms others.

We should remember that gambling is a leisure activity that goes back centuries, and which millions enjoy, at little or no cost to those around them.

Nevertheless, it seems that public opinion has moved to the view that negative social consequences and harm have flowed from the gambling industry's tendency to cluster in areas of deprivation and high unemployment.

Politicians can't ignore that shift, and in the coming consultation will have to balance it against the doubtless vociferous complaints of a gambling industry that is adjusting to life online.

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