In this intense interview, RightCasino.com editor Joe Attard sits down with political commentator and journalist, Christopher Snowdon.
A vocal critic of anti-gambling lobbyists and government regulators, Chris explains why he would "tax all gambling products at the same rate," voices controversial opinions regarding addicts and condemns media representation of the gambling industry.
Watch this definitive interview, exclusively with RightCasino.com.
Interview transcript Joseph: Hello, this is Joseph Attard interviewing Christopher Snowdon for RightCasino.com. How you doing Chris?
Chris: Very well thanks yes good to be here.
Joseph: You too, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. We’re going to rattle off a few topics today so hopefully it will be very enlightening. Let’s start with a little bit about you. So obviously you're an author, journalist and political commentator. And in general your writing kind of implies and ideological commitment to social and economic liberalism. And you’ve been a vocal opponent of what you describe as a ‘Nanny State’ in Britain and elsewhere. For the sake of our users would you mind expanding on these views a little bit and telling us a little about your career?
Chris: Yes, I’ve mainly focused my work, my research and my books on what you call nanny state issues. Now we call them lifestyle economic issues because they look at these attempts to improve people’s health or improve people’s morals by looking at the cost and benefits. What you get with campaigners whether it's gambling, or anti-smoking or anti-alcohol or whatever it may be, obesity at the moment of course is a big one, is they look at an issue and say if well if we do X, Y and Z we can improve this situation somewhat. Or at least we might improve it and so we might as well give it a go.
They rarely look at the costs of this, often because they don’t see the benefits that people are enjoying from drinking or smoking or what have you in the first place.
So we tried to bring a more rounded view of these issues and say well actually what are the problems here with the black market? What are the problems here with you're hurting the poor by charging them more money? What are the issues so we can come to a more informed policy decision about some of these controversial products?
Joseph: So you would say that your position isn’t so much anti-interventionist as it is attempting to find a more rounded picture of how certain industries might best benefit the consumer and protect the health of consumers?
Chris: Yes I mean I’ve covered it from a more liberal point of view than often the government, and certainly often more than campaigners do. I mean I believe basically that people should be free to get on and live their lives as they see fit, but I don’t have a problem with the kind of ‘nudge approach’ if you're taken literally rather than kind of distorted as it often is. And I don’t have a problem with people having to pay for their externalities.
So if there are genuine externalities to do with alcohol for example I think it's appropriate that alcohol be taxed to cover those costs. But again often the cost of things to the NHS or to society is enormously exaggerated.
Joseph: So you’ve been highly critical in general of government intervention in so called vice industries, such as as you mentioned fast food, tobacco and gambling as well. Would you mind giving us a sort of executive summary of your attitudes towards the UK’s treatment of in particular the gambling sector in terms of regulation and taxation, what's your general feeling towards it?
Chris: Well I’m always surprised at what a taboo gambling still is too many people. I mean I see it, of all things I talk about, smoking, drinking and gambling I guess possibly obesity is slightly less taboo, but that’s debatable, but I’ve always seen gambling as being something that used to have a sort of ring of shame around it, but I thought we’d got over that some years ago.
But when you see these issues come up with casino regulation, what maybe ten years ago with the fixed odds betting terminals, now you see that actually a lot of people have quite strong moral objections to gambling.
Chris: They do believe in the attitude of the mid-20th Century where even quite liberal people believed that gambling was something to be tolerated. But it should never really be condoned, people should really be making any money out of it, certainly shouldn’t be advertised and you should try and contain it as much as you can.
So I think that the gambling industry has had a hard time over the years. I think that the Blair government did try to improve things and in some respects they did improve things, but casinos in particular have been given a really bad deal because suddenly the hastily re-patched version of the Gambling Act that came in 2005, all this panic about so called super casinos led to much needed reform of the casino laws not happening. And in fact you have in some instances some really ludicrous laws.
And everybody knows that a casino is the safest place to gamble as they call it, but the UK is currently very under stocked with them. I mean I’m down near Brighton, there’s a couple of casinos in Brighton, but if I go north I won’t get to another one until I’m in South London.
Joseph: Sure yes, I mean obviously the general clustering of our most valuable industries in London, it's been impacting us on multiple levels, but casinos as always get a hard time, we’ll sort of come back to issues of FOBTs and the 2005 Gambling Act you mentioned a bit later on.
I was just wondering, I was chatting to Dr Mark Griffiths the other week and obviously he’s quite an important authority on gambling and gambling psychology and the industry in general and he pointed out that if you were to ask the majority of Britons, ‘are you a gambler, do you gamble?’ They would probably say no, then you ask them, ‘well do you play the Lottery?’ and they say yes. So obviously there’s kind of a discrepancy between certain gambling activities and products being accepted and others not. Do you think this is adequately reflected in the way that they're regulated and taxed or is there an imbalance?
Chris: To be honest I think it's fairly well reflected in regulation, I mean I think there is a difference between soft gambling and hard gambling. Some forms of gambling you can lose an enormous amount of money quite quickly. I know people say that you can put £100,000 on a horse, but very few people do that, very few people spend £100,000 on lottery tickets or scratch cards.
So you can have people addicted to scratch cards and some people are without a doubt, but it's a matter of limited levels of potential harm with these things.
So yes I think the Lottery is rightly seen as being at the bottom end of the scale, and casinos and hard gambling are seen at the top end of the scale. And that is really reflected in the regulatory pyramid. There's clearly a lot more regulation of casinos than there is of the Lottery, and in my opinion there’s too much for casinos.
But generally it follows a fairly logical ladder. The question about the fixed odds betting terminals of course is that you’re bringing what are traditionally seen as hard gambling casino games into bookmakers and I don’t have a problem with that, but I can see why some people think that it's somewhat anomalous to having machines where you can play £100 a stake when the other machines aren’t like that, otherwise you would have to go to a casino or of course on line to do it.
Joseph: I suppose the only other instance where there’s a slight discrepancy on balance. At least off the top of my head would be bingo halls. I mean I suppose you read A Bet Worth Taking. The re-evaluation of The Gambling Act by the Leisure and Media Committee?
Joseph: And they requested that bingo as a sort of low frequency, low stake gambling product have its fairly steep taxation levels reduced in accordance with the fact that it's a soft gambling product, but the government just outright said no. Basically, ‘we’re making too much money from taxing bingo halls so we’re not going to reduce taxation even though we recognise it's much less harmful than other practices that are more heavily taxed.’ So I suppose there are still imbalances that need to be addressed.
Chris: Yes that is true, I think that all gambling should be taxed at the same rate, I don’t see…
Chris: I don’t see taxation as being a way of reducing harm to people; if anything it just means they spend more money. This is always the case really with certain taxes. I think there should certainly be a level playing field with taxation, but I do think there should be different levels of regulation in terms of access.
Joseph:So what sort of regulation do you envision, and would it come from the government, or would it come from the gambling industry, or somewhere completely different; an independent body?
Chris: Well I think a lot of the good regulation does come from the gambling industry and I think that the recent code for bookmakers was a good example of the gambling industry regulating itself, albeit under the point of a gun really. Sensible stuff.
The kind of regulation I see as sensible really basically is I don’t think you should be allowed to open a casino anywhere for example. I think there should be far more licences or rather there should be far more scope for opening casinos in places where there is demand than there is at the moment. But the principal of being able to sell a lottery ticket in any shop, but you having to go through the triple lock of regulation to open a casino seems to me to not be unreasonable.
Joseph: So I’m looking forward to your answer to this question, how you characterise the representation of gambling in the mainstream British media?
Chris: Oh it's appalling! Generally and like I say it goes back to my surprise about how repelled some people still are about gambling. Even as you say, even if they actually gamble themselves on the Lottery as most people do.
So if you look at the Guardian, the Independent, sometimes the Mirror, although the Mirror is actually more pro-gambling than most other papers, look really at any of the coverage that surrounded the 2005 act, it wasn’t just the Mail attacking the labour government, pretty much every newspaper got on board that there was just going to be, it was just going to be a mafia run, Las Vegas style super casinos in every town in Britain. And this was just never going to happen. And partly because of that coverage there weren’t any super casinos which I think is a real shame. I think Blackpool would have benefitted from it and it was a mistake to give it to Manchester in the first place.
Joseph: Dr Mark Griffiths wouldn’t like to hear you say that, Dr Mark Griffiths would be appalled to hear you say that.
Chris: Oh really? He’s against super casinos is he?
Joseph: No, not at all he was just on the committee that recommended that Manchester get the first one. He was very proud of that bid.
Joseph: Yes he…
Chris: Did he say what his motivations were for or giving it to Manchester?
Joseph: Well actually I slightly misconstrued that. He was in charge of the committee that put the bid to the body that allocated the super casino. So he was in charge of making Manchester’s case basically.
Chris: Oh right, right.
Joseph: I think he was very proud of that bid and I believe the criteria which ultimately resulted in Manchester winning the bid was it was seen that Manchester would benefit the most more or less in terms of economic regeneration, in terms of generating employment, and it had the best infrastructure for a casino, this kind of thing.
Chris: Yes well I mean working out what the economic multiplier is from something like casinos is notoriously difficult; I mean he may be right I don’t know. But it seemed to me that Blackpool was in much greater need of it than Manchester. Because Blackpool really is struggling these days, it desperately needs regeneration. Manchester doesn’t, Manchester has already had quite a bit of regeneration, I think it would have been great for the area. People in Britain even if they don’t go to Blackpool any more have sort of fond memories of that I think, generally particularly in the north west. It needed something to get it going and I just…
And also the majority of MPs were behind it being in Blackpool, and one of the reasons there was less resistance than there could have been in parliament was because people felt it was a way of getting Blackpool going, so I thought that was a mistake. But there shouldn’t have been a limit on one anyway.
Chris: The seaside towns in Britain all need a bit if help to be honest with you. As I say we’ve got two casinos in Brighton, we used to have three, one closed down. And why not, I think Bognor Regis is very keen on having one at the moment, it would I’m sure benefit from it. But these ridiculous restrictions of a committee deciding who needs a casino and who doesn’t means that they can’t have one. Whereas Leeds has got an extra licence and have already got four I think. So it's ludicrous regulation.
Joseph: Yes it is rather bizarre in some respects. I think the second super casino, I think there’s only two regional super casinos regional casinos as we call them in the UK, and the first one Aspers at Stratford near us, and one in Milton Keynes as well which I think is also an Aspers.
Chris: See super casinos, ours was intended, there are no licences for the big resort casinos and very few of the bigger casinos have been built and probably never will.
Chris: You’ve got sixteen licences potentially from the act and the reality is that it would be amazing if even half of them get built.
Joseph: You’ve commented pretty extensively on the controversy surrounding fixed odds betting terminals, I mean this is all over the papers, and once again we’re seeing, like a broken record, every headline: ‘FOBTs: the crack cocaine of gambling.’ And you actually sort of borrowed that moniker for kind of a post that went on the IEA where you talk about the representation of FOBTs and the potential harm of FOBTs. So before we get into more detail I just wondered if you could reiterate for anybody watching your general feelings towards FOBTs and the whole controversy surrounding them.
Chris: Well I don’t really have a strong view on the FOBTs, because I mean I’ve tried to work with empirical evidence wherever possible and there really isn’t any in the case of FOBTs. So what my report for the IEA was about last year was really looking at the claims made against them and seeing when they could be tested empirically, if they stood up, none of them did. You know the crack cocaine of gambling tag, you know it's amusing to go back and see where that came from. It’s kind of thirty years old and has been applied to every form of gambling under the sun. So it's just a slogan that anti-gambling organisations use all the time and the media goes along with it.
The other claims are things like, you know, it's led to a proliferation of betting shops, it hasn’t - you know, the number of bookies has risen from an all-time low by about less than 5%, the all-time low was a thousand, there are far, far fewer bookies than there were in the 1970s, or even most of the 90s.
The claim about addiction is obviously the core claim and this is obviously implied by the crack cocaine idea, and that really can’t be, it can’t be proven one way or the other, or at least it hasn’t done so far, all we’ve got is a whole load of anecdotes and it's very easy to get anecdotes about any form of gambling whatsoever. And also there’s no acknowledgement really of the unintended consequences in terms of people just doing the same thing on line.
Now I don’t have the answers to, I’m not going to sit here and say that fixed odds betting terminals are fine, they're no worse than any other form of gambling. They may be for some reason. It's just that I don’t like organisations going out there, very well-funded, lobbying government, using arguments that really don’t stand up at all. So I’m glad that the government has commissioned some research into it, I’ll look forward to reading it when it's published later in this year.
But you know the plural of anecdote isn’t evidence and at the moment we’ve got a very motivated but very small organisation campaigning for fairer gambling who for whatever reason are running a major crusade against these machines. And I really think we should wait for some evidence.
Joseph: When we were chatting with Dr Griffiths he obviously specialises in addiction. He’s not anti-gambling in the slightest, by his own admission. As I say he was part of the organisation that put together a bid for Manchester to receive the super casino.
He argued, we were talking about difficulty of ascertaining the addictiveness of particular gambling practices and he basically said that his team, his researchers used six specific criteria to identify addiction. Boiling it down to gambling basically the factor which most powerfully motivates addiction is event frequency. So it's the speed at which you can bet something, or the speed at which something happens.
And as you say online in particular I mean you think about online slot machines there are thousands of possible permutations and thousands of opportunities to win per spin. So those kinds of games in those terms are quite addictive. I suppose the question with the FOBTs isn’t so much about addiction, at least if you have some evidence obviously the evidence for their relative addictiveness is a bit of a complex point. You can certainly argue though that they stimulate problem gambling, problem being different from addiction because of the relatively high amount that you can bet in a relatively short space of time.
I mean for problem gambling to be a problem it just has to negatively impact your life. So could you argue that albeit misinformed the real issue surrounding FOBTs isn’t that they're addictive or seductive, but that they stimulate problem gambling?
Chris: Yes I mean that’s a good question, I mean to be honest, the question around fixed odds betting terminals has been turned into a question about addiction because that’s how it’s been portrayed by its opponents and that’s how the media routinely portray it, with this very dubious statistic that problem gambling has increased by 50% or whatever in the last few years. Which again doesn’t really stand up.
Yes I think I take your point and Mark Griffiths’ point I do agree with him on most issues. I tend to incline towards the opinion that if you're looking to prevent addiction or you’re looking to reduce the amount of gambling addiction in society you're on a lost cause because people either have that part of their personality or they don’t. It’s the same with alcohol. You know most people drink, a fairly small minority are dependant drinkers or alcoholics, it's a question then of reducing the harm for that small minority.
And that’s where the balancing act comes in because you have less than 1% of the population are problem gamblers by any sensible definition and you know a lot of people who are not problem gamblers are playing these machines and enjoying them. And they can’t go to a casino a lot of the time to play the same games because there aren’t any, and going online to play them is, doesn’t seem to me to be an improvement on going to a bookmakers or anywhere else to play them.
So yes it's a matter of reducing harm, preventing excessive harm to problem gamblers while respecting the rights of the majority of people, and I generally tend to believe in protecting the rights of the majority because you can just go on forever trying to protect the rights or prevent harm to the small minority. Never forget that they are causing harm to themselves at the end of the day and to be quite frank I don’t think I have as much sympathy for a so called gambling addict as I do to a heroin addict or an alcoholic, because there just isn’t that physiological difference there. That’s really compelling. So I do sympathise to some extent but I don’t think it should be equated with addiction to substances.
So I mean to try and answer your question speed of play comes up a lot as being one of the issues, it’s just that’s how long it takes to spin a ball round on a computer. You know if you extended it you would be doing so unnaturally and it would become less enjoyable and more boring for the people who don’t require the government’s protection in this issue.
You can lower the stakes I mean that’s the other thing and I’m not opposed to the idea of lowering the stakes. The £100 stake is purely arbitrary. It's done because £2 would just be not worth playing because there’s just not the excitement there, you need to have a significant prize to win. Not £4 you know or whatever it would be, it still wouldn’t be a great deal even if you're playing single numbers. So yes I mean we can have a discussion about what the stake should be, but I would like to know if that’s going to make any difference.
Another thing that Mark Griffiths says which I agree with him about is that problem gamblers really only see their cash as being tokens with which to buy more time on the machine. So we can talk about would it be better if the maximum stake was £5, or £10 or £20 but that would only be worth doing if it's going to make a difference. If the problem gamblers are just going to sit there for a bit longer and lose the same amount of money I don’t see how that is useful. It’s just going to annoy the admittedly fairly small number of people who want to be playing for £50 or £1000 a spin.
Joseph: A couple of those points, so you talk about you have relatively less sympathy for a gambling addict versus a substance abuser or substance addict, because there isn’t the physiological elements, but you also said that gambling, the capacity to become a gambling addict is innate, so does that not imply there is a physiological element? I mean there’s been evidence to suggest that there is a gene which corresponds to the course of action that some of them, it's no fault of the person who suffers as a result of addiction, that’s an accident of birth, isn’t that worth sympathy?
Chris: Well as I said I do sympathise to some extent, just not to the same extent as somebody who is going to get glaring tremors if they stop doing those. And there is obviously an element of willpower in all these kinds of addition and I think that should be better recognised. I think that the problem I have with certain problem gamblers, the ones who go on to become politically active, is this…
If you're trying to stop gambling and you’ve got a problem with it, the first thing that you have to do is accept responsibility for your actions and what people who are campaigning against these machines or any form of gambling, having gone through the process of losing a lot of money and doing all sorts of terrible things, stealing from people and so on. If they're going to then blame the government, or blame the bookmakers, or blame the casino owners they're not taking that basic first step which is to take responsibility first and foremost for the fact that nobody compelled you to do any of what you’ve done. And if you're a heavy drinker and as a result of being an alcoholic you beat your wife and you drink drive you wouldn’t expect any sympathy from them. But problem gamblers for some reason, some of them I’m only talking about a small minority, the ones who are prepared to go on television and complain about the industry, problem gamblers seem to think it's perfectly alright to say, ‘yes I used to steal from my mother and so on and I’m the victim.’
Well I’m sorry you're not the victim, you are the villain and a compulsion to gamble, which many people would see as being very selfish and self-indulgent is not an excuse for that. So I’d take a fairly firm line on it all round. I do take your point that there may be some sort of genetic element, but it's a genetic element that many other people have and manage to control as people do with alcohol.
Joseph: Can we talk for a minute not so much about the sympathy for the gamblers who inflict these harms, but a kind of pragmatic recognition of the damage that their addiction or compulsive behaviour causes. I mean sympathy for the victims, sympathy for the mother who has £50 taken out of her purse. If the industry recognises that certain gambling practices are resulting in more harm associated with compulsive or addictive gamblers then surely it has a responsibility to protect the rest of us? I mean in the same way that brands who sell alcoholic beverages, their primary responsibility in my view shouldn’t necessarily be to the drinker, it should be to everybody who isn’t drinking because they’re the ones who suffer from the lager louts, who suffer from people who steal to sustain their drinking habits. On a purely pragmatic level doesn’t the industry have a responsibility to us?
Chris: Well I don’t know if I accept the premise of the question because you again seem to be assuming that it's the industry’s fault that people are doing these things. I don’t blame the people who manufacture knives for stabbings in London, and it is ultimately down to the individual about what they do. You know we mustn’t forget that the person who steals, or the person who is violent when drunk is the culprit and there’s no getting away from that.
Now if there’s things that the industry can do or government can do to industry which will in some way mitigate the possibility, mitigate those harms and reduce the possibility of them occurring without significantly impeding the rights of the vast majority of people who drink or gamble or what have you without these problems, then all the better. Unfortunately these only a limited range of things that regulation can do which is going to have that effect. And very quickly you get to the point where you start talking what I call the neo-prohibitionist route, which is to gradually ban things and tax them ultimately out of existence. So that’s a problem.
But I 100% don’t agree with the idea that’s it's the producer’s fault for people doing things that may harm themselves or may lead to that person harming other people. It is 100% the consumer of those products. With or without any genetic effects or what have you, you know there's a genetic effect for people being psychopaths it doesn’t mitigate their crimes.
Joseph: Yes absolutely I mean you know our website’s called Right Casino, I’m very much not anti-gambling I don’t think that the majority responsibility should fall at the feet of the gambling industry in a way a lot of anti-gambling pundits seem to think. I think it's more, as you mentioned previously, some of the best regulation comes from the industry itself. So I’m not so much saying that we should place culpability for the actions of addicts and compulsive players at the foot of the industry, I’m saying that they're in the best position to protect the rest of us from people, who as you say a very small minority, who lose themselves to compulsive play. It's not that it's their fault it's just that they can most effectively protect consumers against that outcome.
Chris: Yes that may well be true, but you know there’s this implication, I’m not saying that you're making this implication, but this suggestion in a whole range of nanny state issues that it's time to do something, we must act and so on, without actually looking at the level of regulation that we’re already under. I mean gambling in Britain is really only coming out of a period of complete prohibition. It's only 1961 I think when bookmakers were legalised, and even then in a very highly regulated manner because casinos weren’t legal until the early 1960s either.
So we’re emerging from a period of prohibition and we haven’t had a great deal of deregulation. The fixed odds betting terminals and the abolition of the twenty four hour rule are really the only significant pieces of liberalisation since about 1968. So the idea that we’re currently in a free for all and we must start cracking down on this I think is wrong. And I think that the real issue is that we have in some areas regulation that is too oppressive and tight and unnecessary.
Casinos are a prime example of that, I think bookmakers at the moment are in a fairly good situation. But I’ve got to go back to the online world. The online world really does blow the whole idea that you can have 1960s style regulation in gambling.
Joseph: Well I’m really glad you brought it up because that’s exactly where we’re going to go next. So specifically with the launch pad of talking about the FOBT controversy you mentioned in a few of your writings that over-regulation of current FOBTs might push users into online gambling which is less heavily regulated.
So, first of all to kind of predicate this conversation, what is your view of the impact of online gambling on government regulation? I mean does it completely change everything, does it make everything else which has ever been done to regulate the gambling industry look redundant and ridiculous?
Chris: Well I haven't yet done any serious research about the online world. It's I think virtually impossible to regulate to any significant degree. I mean the respectable companies, particularly the ones based in Britain are going to, are fairly well regulated and quite well self-regulated. But there’s no doubt that there is a sort of Wild West of online gambling out there which can’t be stopped any more than you can stop everything else on the internet. I mean the porn industry for example is completely unregulated and never will be regulated on the internet.
So bearing that in mind if people can play slot machines at mobile casinos for £1,000 a spin on their phone on their way to work I think that we need to bear that in mind when we have the rest of the regulation. Because from the government’s point of view you are at least getting tax and significant tax revenue from bingo halls, bookies, casinos and that’s going to go away if people are playing these types of games online.
So I know at the moment the government is making more and more effort to try and get some tax revenue from…
Joseph: Yes point of consumption tax should come in this year, end of Q1, I think.
Chris: Exactly and one of the big incentives of course for companies paying tax in Britain is that they can advertise. And so it comes back to unintended consequences. There’s plenty of people think there are far too many gambling adverts and it should be banned, but if you ban it then they’ll just go to the Bahamas or what have you, you know. So there’s always consequences from actions.
I don’t think there’s any point trying to regulate online gambling particularly, that doesn’t mean I think that high street gambling should play by exactly the same rules, but it does mean if you see evidence of people shifting to online for games that they could quite legitimately play on the high street, including, especially perhaps blackjack and roulette and fixed odds betting terminals then you should accept that and try and get people in a reasonably regulated environment where they are paying tax and not just leave them on the internet where they play for unlimited stakes, completely unregulated, twenty four hours a day.
Joseph: So if the on ine world is the kind of you know frontier west of the gambling market, first of all do you see that as a dangerous presence, is that something which, you say that you can’t do too much about it by its very nature but is that something which you would recommend to gamblers that you should avoid playing online, keep it at home perhaps?
Chris: Well yes I mean my views are really the same as the government, it's that there is a regulatory pyramid and at the moment on line is not in it and never will be in it so like the government I would rather play, sorry I would rather have people gamble in regulated environments than in unregulated ones.
Now that doesn’t mean I’m demonising the online world. I don’t think there's anything necessarily wrong with online gambling and I think most of the online gambling sites are very well regulated or self-regulated. People playing poker online I see as a perfectly healthy thing. The effect it has on proper gamblers I think is another area where there needs to be a bit more research. And again I would be interested in it, but in a way where does that research leave you policy wise, because there isn’t a great deal that can be done about it.
Joseph: So once again I guess the answer has to come from the industry itself?
Chris: Has to come from the industry?
Chris: Yes it does I mean I think if there is an answer to this it is to encourage people to play on regulated websites from countries like the UK, or especially the UK because I really don’t think there is a problem with the online gambling world you know from your Ladbrokes and Hills and Party Poker. I think potentially there is a problem with some of the other websites. But as there’s nothing you can do about them I think the only sensible thing is to encourage people to use the respectable ones which basically are the ones which advertise.
Joseph: Well obviously we’ve seen significant issues with the online gambling industry ourselves which is why we started this website to help people instantly and easily locate safe secure websites with proper licensing, they're independently audited. We think that the solution for the online gambling market is a matter of transparency. It's about every brand being up-front about what they provide, being up-front about pay outs, about their regulation, about their licensing that’s really our objective. And we think that’s where the future of online should be.
Chris: Yes I mean I agree, it would be, they may already have for all I know I don’t really gamble online, but it would be good to have some sort of stamp of approval if you like, awarded by some kind of independent but probably industry funded body so that people know where they are. Sort of an on line gambling kite mark.
Joseph: That’s what we offer, Right Casino Mark.
Chris: I didn’t know that so I’m glad I’ve sort of unintentionally supported your work.
Joseph: We’re delighted obviously thank you very much. So data from the gambling commission and this is quite a thorny topic which has been quite heavily publicised suggests that gambling losses are almost exactly inversely proportionate in the UK to income levels. So if this data is accurate and the people who gamble the most are the lowest incomes surely somebody is failing somewhere, there has to be some kind of error being committed by somebody, or is it purely a matter of responsibility for the individual?
Chris: I don’t know if it's an error, I mean you see this kind of inverse socio-economic gradient with a lot of things. You see it particularly with smoking where you’ve got kind of the wealthiest people have a smoking prevalence of 10%, people on the lowest incomes have a smoking prevalence of about 30%, 35%, you have homeless people who have a smoking prevalence of 90%. So it's, these kind of vices if you like are not price sensitive in the way that you would expect. It's really got nothing to do with affordability.
Now a lot of people would say it's down to education and there may be some truth in that. Some people would say there's an element of reverse causation in here where if you’re spending a huge amount of money on cigarettes and gambling then you are by definition going to be poor.
None of this has helped of course by extremely regressive sin taxes on these kind of products. So there is an argument for saying the government wants to reduce the regressive nature of any of these products and limit what used to called secondary poverty. It's not a phrase this used very much these days, secondary poverty, but it's basically people who wouldn’t be poor unless they were spending their money on various unnecessary products.
And then there's the sociological, psychological aspect of it which is that you know smoking, drinking and gambling have always been particularly associated with working class people and people on lower incomes and there are perfectly valid sort of economic if you like, economics in the broadest sense, economic reasons for that, which really just come down to if your life is not all that enjoyable them you’re going to seek out temporary and possibly unhealthy and possibly even immoral pleasures. And it’s always been this way.
So I don’t think anyone is failing anybody I think its rally the way it's always been and is actually justifiable to some extent if you look at people’s social circumstances. The best way to reduce these problems if they are problems is economic growth, make people richer.
Joseph: Sure, but richer or not there’s always going to be socio-economic gradients and chances are it will always reflect inversely the level of consumption for if you like vice products. Although like you I don’t really like that term. So is there really nothing that can be done beyond saying if we all get richer then we won't have so much of a problem? Because the way I see it whether or not general wealth increases there's always going to be those gradients, so surely that’s not going to solve the problem?
Chris: Well there will always be inequalities like that. But I don’t think inequality and stuff is associated with these problems which is to say if you have greater inequality you have more of these problems. I, well I do think that wealth and education are the main factors. But I think we need to accept these things will always go on and not see them as a problem necessarily and ultimately accept that people have a right to choose.
The fact that people on lower incomes might smoke more doesn’t necessarily suggest that they're being manipulated, or that the industry somehow for some reason is targeting poorer people. I mean one of the things about the fixed odds betting terminal moral panic is that there's all this outrage about the number of FOBTs in low income areas.
Well for one thing have always been more bookmakers in low income areas because dog racing, horse racing have always been more popular with the working class, and the other thing is you know what is the implication here? That the betting industry has deliberately gone out to target people in low income areas? As plans go it doesn’t really make any sense. The obvious explanation for it is that’s where the demand is. The bookmakers aren’t creating demand; it's very difficult to create demand in fact. The fact of the matter is that people in those areas often immigrant community who come from countries such as China where there is much more of a gambling tradition anyway.
You know they are responding to the demand that really all there is to it. If they could persuade people and manipulate people into playing these machines they would clearly have more of a motivation to open them in the middle of Chelsea rather than the middle of Tottenham.
Joseph: Yes of course, again the question isn’t so much that the industry is setting out to make people poorer or target the poor people, as you say that wouldn’t even make business sense let alone be morally justifiable, I guess the argument is more that by going where the money is, whether or not that makes sense from a business perspective, it is perpetuating what some would describe as a problem. And I guess my question is there anything that the industry can do to mitigate that?
Chris: I think the short answer is no.
Chris: I think that the slightly longer answer is that the government shouldn’t be doing it anyway. I think its slightly patronising to say well this is more concentrated amongst people on low incomes so we need to address it because they can’t think for themselves and they're just pawns in the game and they’re too ignorant.
I mean it may be that there's a higher rate of ignorance about risk and statistics and odds in that area which of course should be dealt with by education. And I’m not one of these people who says about every problem well there needs to be more education, but I do think that some sort of course in school about probability, statistics, epidemiology the kind of things would be useful, to just for gambling but for all sorts of things in modern life.
H G Wells said about a hundred years ago that a time would come where an understanding of statistics would be essential for modern life, and I think that time has actually come whether it's from understanding the risks of sugar to take a topical example.
Chris: Red meat yes any of these things, understand the difference between relative risk and absolute risk, or understanding what your odds are in a bookmakers playing anything really but particularly fixed odds betting terminals. I mean it is a very well used cliché that gambling is a mug’s game that the house always wins. But it certainly is true the house will always win and if people don’t believe that or they don’t understand why that is that’s a problem. Gambling is fundamentally an entertainment pursuit that like most entertainment pursuits you need to hand over hard cash for. One way or the other. And the way you hand it over in gambling is less predictable and the amounts you’re going to be handing over is equally less predictable. And sometimes you don’t hand it over at all, sometimes you get it handed to you. But it still needs to be seen as an entertainment product.
You know gambling at the end of the day is a form of entertainment and like most forms of entertainment you need to pay for it, you will be handing over money. And in gambling the way you handover the money is rather different than owing to the cinema, firstly you don’t know how much you're going to hand over, secondly sometimes you get handed the money and thirdly you don’t know how much you're going to be handing over or receiving in either case.
But the reality is that most of the time in the long term you will be handing money over and therefore it needs to be seen as entertainment that the house will always win and therefore don't do it too much. The longer you spend playing the more you're going to lose so treat it as a form of entertainment. Because it's obviously not a way to make money and there are very few forms of gambling where people actually make a living from it, and certainly roulette isn’t one of them.
Joseph: Okay well thank you, I think it's about time we wrapped this up. So finally you’ve argued that, and I’m quoting you here so if it sounds familiar that’s why, that ‘better regulation of the domestic gambling industry should focus on providing greater flexibility, new technology and larger stakes for venues which are higher up the regulatory pyramid.’ Do you ever see this scenario coming to pass in Britain or are we already there?
Chris: Well we’re not already there and I think I was mainly talking about casinos and that kind of thing.
Joseph: Yes you were.
Chris: I mean the casino industry is in my opinion the main part of the industry that needs liberalisation. It was widely acknowledged in the early 2000s that the rules that the casino had to follow were very archaic, they were anachronistic and they reflected the problems of casino gambling in the 1960s when there was a free or all and it was very heavy associated with organised crime.
Everybody knew that was the case in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and one of the main reasons I think that the Gambling Act came along was to address that and unfortunately we had a moral panic to do with the so called Las Vegas super casinos that it all got, the baby got thrown out with the bath water and there is simply not the right provision, there's not the right spacing out of casinos around the country, and there are not enough places where people can gamble at casinos.
That needs to be changed. There also needs to be change in terms of how many machines casinos can have, it's ludicrous to limit them to the extent that they have. And in a way I can see the casinos’ complaints, assuming they have a complaint about bookmakers having all these fixed odds betting terminals when they can have so few.
The casino is at the top of the pyramid, it should be allowed to provide in my opinion pretty much unlimited gambling, you know where you're going, you what you're going to get if you walk into a casino.
Lower down the ladder you’ve got the bingo halls and the bookies which are pretty well regulated, all the way down to the Lottery, you know you only have to be sixteen to buy a ticket and you can buy them pretty much anywhere. The online world is half outside that pyramid really and that is the elephant in the room in terms of regulation, I would like to see the gambling industry regulated, I don’t really see any areas where I think there is under-regulation at the moment I think that the move should all be in the direction of liberalisation, and I think it will happen eventually.
But unfortunately the issues around the super casinos in particular are so toxic that I don’t see politicians wanting to re-visit this any time soon except possibly to clamp down on fixed odds betting terminals.
Joseph: I might add a quick addendum there actually, so you could argue I suppose that if you go on to an online casino in the same way you know exactly what you're getting, you know exactly that you’re on that website to gamble, so do you think that online gambling is almost an ideal scenario, I mean it's virtually unregulated as you say except for a lot of brands in this country who are patently audited and throughout Europe actually, so does the online market have it right, is that where we should be?
Chris: I don’t think so really. I mean don’t get me wrong I’m not in the least bit opposed to online gambling, I think actually it fills a gap that has been created by excessive revulsion. But I guess the advantage of being in a casino over being online is that there are some checks and balances. You will be thrown out if you are drunk, at some point of your losing heavily or looking particularly cross or irrational there's a good chance that’s somebody will come over and have a word.
So there are sort of harm reduction policies in place particularly in casinos that recognise the fact that there is hard gambling taking place, that doesn’t the happen on line.
You know from an empirical point of view there needs to be more research done into is there more damage being caused into problem gamblers by themselves online than in casinos? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but it seems to me that it would be a shame if gambling moved over entirely into the online world.
Joseph: Well true no one is going to serve you a martini when you’re playing on line.
Chris: Exactly yes and it's more social as well. You know gambling at the end of the day is as I said before is a form of entertainment. And there should be a social element to it a lot of the time and casinos do really provide that with the live music, the drinks and generally the conviviality which you get also in bingo halls to a lesser extent in bookies, but they are also community hubs as well lot of the time. And you won’t get it all really online.
So to end I would just really stress that everybody from the industry to the gambling opponents to the politicians to the users must always bear in mind this is a form of entertainment and it costs money but it is part of the entertainment business and should be encouraged to be part of the entertainment business even if it's not for everybody.
Joseph: Wonderful; well thank you very much Chris that was really, really interesting and we really appreciate you turning up for the interview, this is Joseph Attard interviewing once again Chris Snowdon for RightCasino.com, thanks very much Chris.