Bookmakers’ attempts to curb problem gambling ‘in disarray’
A system set up by bookmakers to address problem gambling is in disarray, according to campaigners, after a report exposed vast differences in how firms apply the measures.
The report, produced by accountancy group PwC and seen by the Guardian, found flaws in how betting shops use “player awareness systems”, which are meant to curb addiction to fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
It comes ahead of a government review into the machines, sometimes dubbed the crack cocaine of the industry, which allow players to stake up to £100 every 20 seconds. The PwC report, commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust charity, identified multiple flaws in player awareness systems, which automatically identify signs of problem gambling, such as the frequency and size of a player’s bets.
Once a customer is flagged as “at risk”, they can be sent messages encouraging them to take a break or warning them of the danger of addiction. But statistics from the report, which did not name individual companies, found holes in how bookies are using the system.
Of 169,424 active customers, who can be tracked if they have a loyalty card for a high street bookmaker, 8,219 or about 5% were flagged up as being in the at risk category during the first three months of the systems being used. But only 7,503 messages were sent to gamblers, meaning some firms identified customers as at risk of harm but failed to take any action.
The statistics, from 6,723 high street betting shops, also suggest the systems are undermined by significant variance in the way firms are implementing them. One operator flagged up 1,398 instances of customers displaying at risk behaviour and warned them every time via pop-up messages on the FOBT’s screen.
Another bookmaker flagged 2,352 instances, of which 1,700 involved a customer whose behaviour saw them flagged more than once. But the unnamed company sent only 591 text messages and 36 emails over the period, suggesting it did nothing to engage with half of those players deemed at risk of addiction.
The systems work by identifying certain markers that indicate a gambler is having trouble stopping. But there is no standardisation of how the companies interpret those markers or which markers they use, leading to major discrepancies in the data. For instance, two of the operators run a daily check for patterns indicating problem gambling, while another of the firms does so only every fortnight. The length of time between a new customer displaying signs of potential harm and them being sent a message varied from a few days to 13 weeks.
The report also found that only two people opted to ask firms to block from gambling during the period, calling into question efforts to promote so-called “self-exclusion”.
“At this early stage of the initiative, the design of the systems and processes is still a work in progress,” said PwC.
It said that companies often did not track whether warning messages were delivered, nor did they collect information on whether the gambler changed their behaviour.
PwC also said that procedures designed to halt adverts being sent to at risk players often did not work or were activated after a lengthy delay. It said that weaknesses in the player awareness systems had the “potential to detract significantly from the good work that has been done by the industry in this area”.
Labour MP Carolyn Harris (Swansea East), who chairs a cross-party group on FOBTs, said the report raised questions about the gambling industry’s commitment to ensuring they don’t encourage addiction.
“I wish they were as quick to send messages warning people to stop as they are to send adverts encouraging people to use FOBTs,” she said. “They’re paying lip service to the commitment to look after the punters, as they call them. It’s not acceptable.
“Clearly this system, designed by the bookmakers themselves, is in complete disarray and is far from adequate to address gambling addiction,” said Derek Webb, a former professional poker player who founded the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.
“This is only another ineffective PR exercise and it should not deter the government from stake reduction to £2 in the pending review.”
A spokesperson for the industry regulator, the Gambling Commission, said: “We are pleased that the Responsible Gambling Trustcommissioned work to evaluate the effectiveness of player awareness systems across the industry, and making the findings publicly available demonstrates that it has been a transparent process.”
“We look forward to seeing how the industry utilises the results to shape best practice for operators in a bid to strengthen the protection of players.”
Malcolm George, chief executive of the Association of British Bookmakers, said the industry’s use of player awareness systems was a “world-first” that demonstrated gambling firms’ commitment to tackling addiction. “This report has greatly helped in identifying some of the strengths and weaknesses of the varied systems that were developed by operators,” he said.
“While each operator was at different stages of development during the three month period examined by PwC, which immediately followed the launch of the programme, identifying best practice has led to significant improvement since that time. We will continue to build on this work towards developing greater alignment between operator’s player awareness systems and a consistent set of standards.”