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Opinion

When the gambling industry realised women were potential customers, it reeled them in

The migration to online gambling has removed barriers that stopped people betting. The industry needs reform, writes Ellie Mae O’Hagan, director of think tank Class, which has published a new report into online gambling.

Walk down the average British high street these days and you’ll notice a collection of vacated betting shops. This sight would appear to reassure researchers who have long noted that gambling shops are up to 10 times more likely to be found in the UK’s poorest areas.

Today, many of the nation’s largest bookmakers including William Hill, Betfred, Ladbrokes and Coral have plans to permanently close up to 2,000 high street shops.

Yet what on the surface might come across as a victory for gambling campaigners is actually disguising a bigger and more insidious problem. Most people haven’t stopped betting; they have simply moved online. We can shop online, order food online, even get married online in some countries – and now, thanks to the gambling industry’s increasing focus on apps and websites, we can lose our life savings online too.

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This week, Class released a report about online gambling, which we produced in collaboration with Clean Up Gambling. We found that the migration of gambling online has removed some of the barriers that have historically prevented people from gambling.

Opening hours are no longer a problem, because you can place a bet at 4am if you feel like it. Neither is location – online gambling allows you to place bets on the sofa in your pyjamas, on your lunch break at work, or in the middle of the school run.

And nor is the male-dominated, sometimes seedy ambiance of the local bookies. That has been replaced by cute, technicolour apps encouraging you to become a VIP of the gambling community.

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These big changes to how we gamble have effectively opened up the industry to women, who are now able to place bets while still meeting their caring responsibilities and feeling safe. But with gambling comes gambling addictions – in fact nearly 80 per cent of the industry’s Gross Gambling Yield (a metric for how much money gambling operators keep after they have paid winnings) comes from just 10 per cent of customers.

The gambling charity Gordon Moody has seen a 132 per cent annual increase of women seeking help. Some addiction counsellors report a 300 per cent rise in women reaching out for support since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

At Class, our research with Clean Up Gambling has led us to the conclusion that problematic gambling, and the explosion of gambling addictions in women, is now a major public health crisis. 

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In fact we found that, for women, there was often no prior interest in betting or a history of addiction before their gambling spiralled out of control. And the time it took our female participants to become hooked astonished us: one participant said she was hooked just two weeks after placing her first bet.

Our research participant Jess told us about a game she had become addicted to: “Once I start I physically can’t stop playing until I run out of money. It’s all the lights and colours that entice you in, like, I’ve literally played it for so long that when I try to sleep I can still see the stars rolling in my eyes.”

The gambling industry has created a number of interventions for customers whose gambling has become a problem. But we found that any good done by these safeguards is completely wiped out by the fact that the industry bombards customers with notifications, text messages, free gifts and offers in order to keep them gambling.

Women are pampered by the industry, and encouraged to see the act of gambling as becoming part of a glamorous community. Or as Samantha, one of our research participants, put it: “They would send me a massive gift hamper at Christmas and on my birthday, cashback when I deposited after a loss. They even sent me a £500 Radley voucher. They would do everything to draw me in, they were taking thousands of pounds of me every month and they wanted to keep it that way. The gifts were just bribes.”

The experiences of these women, and people with gambling addictions in general, are symptoms of a long-term government failure to rein in this predatory industry.

In 2005, the New Labour government introduced the Gambling Act, which essentially made a Faustian pact with operators to relax regulations in exchange for operators ending or not participating in tax avoidance.

But the gambling industry did not keep up its part of the bargain, offshoring most of the UK-based activity to Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, Malta or Jersey.

Meanwhile it has been targeting vulnerable people and extracting huge sums of money from them with very little oversight. Our research suggests that when the gambling industry realised that women were potential customers, its response was to reel them in, rather than taking measures to protect their welfare.

In fact, such is the lack of accountability and transparency in the gambling industry that we struggled to get any data at all for our report. Only four months into our five-month research process did we finally get hold of quantitative data we could use.

The government has yet again delayed a long-awaited white paper on gambling laws which was supposed to be released in 2020. It was rescheduled for this month but has been pushed back again to May 2022. This is simply unacceptable when there are thousands of people sinking into debt at the hands of this out-of-control industry.

There needs to be immediate, major reform to the gambling industry, for the sake of the people it targets, and their children. 

Ellie Mae O’Hagan is director of The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS).

@elliemaeohagan

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