Gambling companies step up efforts to sway addiction debate

Gambling companies step up efforts to sway addiction debate

LONDON - On the websites of Britain's bookmakers gamblers can bet around the clock on anything from football in Azerbaijan to financial market fluctuations, while others in betting shops feed high-stake machines that can devour 300 pounds ($470) a minute.

This anywhere, anytime gambling culture has changed the face of the industry over the past 15 years and brought fresh temptations to those who struggle to prevent a harmless flutter from becoming a dangerous addiction.

Whether the 6.3 billion pound industry creates more addicts is disputed, but a media backlash and political posturing ahead of a British national election next year has increased pressure on companies to show they are serious about tackling the problem as the Responsible Gambling Trust prepares to publish new research on the issue next month.

"The challenge for companies is how they are going to persuade the regulator and a more sceptical public that they really care and it's not just cosmetic, or just enough to keep either the regulator or politicians off their back," Philip Graf, chairman of industry regulator the British Gambling Commission, has said.

Gambling has long been legal and tolerated in Britain, but at a price. High-stake betting machines and online revenue are the latest parts of the business to endure tax increases, while planning restrictions are being placed on betting shops that have proliferated in poor inner-city areas.

To avoid further sanctions, companies such as William Hill , Ladbrokes, Gala Coral and Paddy Power are looking to self-police their activities.

In September leading firms set up a watchdog to hold them to account on pledges to advertise more responsibly, committing to fewer shop-window promotions and to screening sign-up TV advertisments at times when fewer children are watching.

They are looking for a balance to ensure that punters avoid addiction but keep coming back - not least to Britain's 33,000 high-stake gambling machines, which generate annual income of 1.5 billion pounds and have given betting shops a fresh purpose at a time when gambling via mobile devices is rocketing.

"Obviously, it is a challenge for companies who are tying to make money; they wouldn't want to do things that would be overly restrictive of their consumers," Dirk Hansen, CEO at gambling addiction support group GamCare, told Reuters.

However, actively helping rather than merely encouraging punters to bet within their means could ensure that customers can afford to bet for many years more, companies say.

In Britain less than 1 per cent of adults are problem gamblers, according to industry data.

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