A nation of punters

The Lottery is just the tip of our gambling habit. Rachelle Thackrayfinds a thriving industry with a

When the largest lottery in the world burst upon Britain five years ago, some warned it would breed a nation of gambling addicts. As Mystic Meg and Anthea Turner began to broadcast to excited millions, the Methodist church deemed the Lottery "an inadvisable development" and urged its members to resist the temptation to have a flutter.

The ministers may have had a point. According to the market research body Mintel, we Britons spend twice as much on gambling as we did a decade ago. Mintel puts the 1998 figure at £6.8 billion, but this "net" total is hedged about with caveats. It excludes on-course betting; it doesn't include ancillary spending on, for example, admission prices; the net figure is stakes minus winnings. And Mintel says that the inclusion of the unofficial market in private high-value bets and offshore gaming could easily add 15 to 20 per cent to the total.

The difficulties of estimating global totals may explain how Camelot comes to use such a vastly different figure for total gambling expenditure: £40 billion annually. This sum, which includes "recycled" winnings, is based on a 1996 study by Salford University's Centre for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming. According to the Salford study, the Lottery took 13 per cent of total gaming expenditure; casinos 45 per cent; sports betting (mainly the horses) nearly 20 per cent. Most of the rest went on fruit machines, bingo and the pools.

In July, Mintel revealed that 82 per cent of us had indulged in some kind of gambling at least once in the past two years. One in four men had placed a bet in a licensed betting office; so had 10 per cent of women. A quarter of those who gambled said they did so at least once a week.

Although each of us spends a relatively modest £3.32 a week on the National Lottery, we make up for our meanness in the numbers who play: more than 90 per cent have had at least one flutter since 1994, and two-thirds of the adult population play regularly. Four times as many people play the Lottery as participate in any other gambling activity.

If the Lottery has turned us all into gamblers, has it turned us into degenerates, too? Sue Slipman, who heads Camelot's division for social responsibility, insists that rules on vetting retailers and preventing sales of tickets to under-16s are strict. Calls to the independent helpline, Gamblers Anonymous, have gone up by a quarter since 1994, but few of the callers are addicted solely to the weekly draw. Slipman says that people have become less "obsessive" about playing than they were at the height of Lottery fever in the mid-1990s. Perhaps it's a more insidious obsession? "When the Lottery started," Slipman accepts, "I don't think anyone realised just what it was going to come to mean in terms of the national psyche."

The main casualty of the Lottery's success has been the football pools. The Pools Promoters Association says pools takings have fallen by two-thirds, from £924 million in 1993-94 to £366 million in 1997-98.

Endorsed by the state and the national media, the National Lottery is a sanitised and sanitising form of gambling, with 28 per cent of revenues going to "good causes" and 12 per cent to the Treasury in tax. Governments have long been aware of the fund-raising potential of lotteries; the first one in Britain, in 1588, was devised to help pay for the upkeep of the Cinque Ports. Society, conversely, has traditionally disdained gambling's appeal to private greed. Even at the height of the liberal sixties, gambling was still perceived to be a threat to the nation's morals. Legislation was piecemeal until 1968, when the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act brought heavy restrictions, especially upon casinos. It also prevented companies from stimulating demand: until 1992, for instance, newspapers could not accept adverts containing the word "bingo". But the eighties brought privatisation and the withdrawal of the state from many areas of our personal lives, and gambling could not remain immune. Deregulation has been swift: Britain now has more permissible forms of gambling than most other countries. Activities need only be crime-free, "non-exploitative" and able to keep out minors, according to the Gaming Board, which regulates the industry for the Home Office.

In this more permissive climate, the Lottery has had the effect of both demasculinising and destigmatising gambling, according to Mark Griffiths, a psychology professor who specialises in gambling research. In 1979 one in five British women gambled, and two in five men. Now the figure is two in three for both sexes. It has also become commonplace socially. Betting shops may advertise more freely on the high street, and have introduced a draw, "49s", probably to appeal to women, who have been shown to prefer numbers games to a study of form.

One type of solitary gambling, through the Internet, is attracting an increasing amount of concern. As yet, few Britons gamble regularly this way and UK law prohibits the issuing of gaming licences for Internet play. Neither can Lottery tickets be sold over the Internet. But there is nothing to prevent terrestrial bookmakers or the football pools from taking bets by e-mail, subject to the standard gaming tax of 9 per cent. Nor, significantly, is it illegal to gamble at casinos or on lotteries abroad. The research firm Datamonitor estimates that by 2004 western Europe will be spending the same amount as the United States - $5.5 billion - on Internet gambling, compared with this year's revenues of $55 million ($570 million in the US).

Broadly speaking, there are three models for Internet gaming regulation: the US, where attempts have been made in the Senate to ban it entirely; Australasia, where authorities may legalise, regulate and tax Internet gambling and make it available to players around the world; and Europe, where a pan-European gaming forum of 15 countries has recommended that governments restrict play to their resident populations. Finland, for example, demands a social security number registration; Ireland, which launches its Internet national lottery later this year, will use a similar system.

In Britain the Home Office has commissioned a national study into the gambling habits of the nation, due to report next year. Given the growth rate of the Internet, it all seems a little pedestrian. Regulation of the industry has been hampered by short-sightedness and fragmentation - the Lottery reports to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport via the National Lottery Commission, the Gaming Board reports to the Home Office, and spread-betting is regulated by the Financial Services Authority - and there is arguably a case for a more cohesive approach to policy.

The Gaming Board envisages three options for Internet gambling regulation: retain the status quo; encourage measures to prevent offshore Internet gambling; or legislate to permit regulated and taxed gambling. Even the latter, most far-sighted, option is problematic. The Internet is a borderless medium, and gambling sites present the same difficulties for policing as do porn and paedophile networks. Users can be anonymous, and set-up costs for unscrupulous operators are minimal. Under-age gamblers and those who gamble to excess are likely to be the first to make use of the unprecedented freedom.

What do Internet developments mean for the future of the National Lottery? Applicants for the new licence, starting in October 2001, have been invited to consider augmenting the Lottery network with "new technology, including the Internet, telephone and digital television". Additional access for consumers "may become a useful feature".

Camelot is keeping mum about its plans, save to underline that whatever it does will be socially responsible. "The government has got to look at who regulates it. It is so unregulated that that seems a contradiction in terms," says a spokeswoman. Indeed, the Internet's inherent anarchy may ultimately render its growing gambling market impossible to control. Having released the hare by derestricting gambling so widely, the government cannot expect the greyhounds to be far behind.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people