The British gambling industry has ballooned in size over the past decade, thanks to the growth of online games and the liberalisation of gambling laws by Tony Blair’s government.
The Gambling Act 2005, which came into force in 2007, opened the door to TV advertising for sports betting, online casinos and poker, giving betting companies direct access to people’s homes.
It also laid out the regulatory landscape governing online gaming and fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), the machines that allow punters to bet up to £100 every 20 seconds.
The industry’s income – along with the amount of tax it pays to the Treasury – has soared since, according to figures from the Gambling Commission. Gross gambling yield – the amount gambling firms win from customers – was £8.36bn in the year beginning April 2008, shortly after the act came into force.
It has climbed 65% to reach a record £13.8bn in the year to September 2016, fuelled largely by a surge in spending on the National Lottery, online gaming and FOBTs.
Income from so-called remote betting – such as online casinos, online poker and online bingo – was just £817m in 2009 but has since reached £4.5bn, making up more than a third of the industry.
However, the surge in income from online is exaggerated by the inclusion of overseas-based operators from 2014 onwards.
The meteoric rise of fixed-odds betting terminals is easier to chart.
The amount that British gamblers lose on FOBTs has increased by 73% since 2009, from £1bn to £1.8bn, despite the number of machines rising by just 9% over the same period to 34,388 – indicating people are losing ever larger sums.
Each machine generates an average of £52,887 a year, according to the figures, about twice the national average wage.
The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) says curbing maximum stakes on FOBTs from £100 to £2, something that could form part of a government review due in October, would seriously damage the industry and the economy.
More than 20,000 of the industry’s 106,678 UK jobs could be lost with thousands of the country’s 8,788 bookmaking shops closing, found a study by KPMG, commissioned by the ABB. It also said a crackdown could cost the Treasury £1bn by 2020.
The ABB has denied that there is a link between FOBTs and problem gambling, but a recent report by the Gambling Commission found that 11.5% of the people who use machines in bookmakers are problem gamblers, up from 7.2% in 2012.
The same report claimed that the number of problem gamblers in the UK was stable, something the commission said was true “statistically”. However, two comparable surveys from the commission indicate the number of problem gamblers – defined as having a habit “to a degree that compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits” – rose between 2012 and 2015.
Its estimate for 2012 was a range of between 109,000 and 413,000 on one of two measurements of addiction, giving a mid-point of 0.6% of the adult population.
For 2015, the latest comparable figure available, it increased the range to between 300,000 and 560,000, or 0.8%. Including people considered at low or moderate risk of developing a problem, the number rises to 2.3 million.
Men are far more likely to be problem gamblers than women. Just 0.2% of adult women have a gambling problem, the commission found, compared with 1.5% among men and 2.3% among men aged 25-34.
A study by the charity GambleAware and the thinktank Institute for Public Policy Research found that problem gambling could be costing the UK economy up to £1.2bn a year.
One of the tools available to anyone seeking to help is “self-exclusion”, industry schemes that allow them to opt out of betting supposedly irreversibly for an agreed period. Between 2009 and 2016, the number of self-exclusions tripled from 11,424 to 34,091, according to Gambling Commission.
But the number of reported self-exclusion breaches – occasions when the system did not work – more than quadrupled from 4,033 to 18,784.
One factor that may dissuade the government from imposing greater regulation is the high tax take the Treasury gets from gambling.
Betting, gaming and lottery duty jumped from £1.48bn in 2007, the year the Gambling Act came into force, to nearly £2.8bn in 2016, according to HM Revenue & Customs.
The media also has a lot to lose from any clampdown on the gambling industry, which has spent £1.4bn on advertising since 2012.
Sport, in particular football, also has something to gain from a thriving gambling industry, which provides a large slice of income.
Shirt sponsorship by gambling companies in the Premier League is worth £47.3m this season, while the industry also provides sponsorship through a variety of other channels.