Tonight: Britain Loves a Bet

Up to half a million people in the UK are now thought to have a serious gambling addiction Photo: Katie Collins/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Britain is in the grip of an unprecedented gambling boom. The statistics speak for themselves.

The UK gambling industry has an annual turnover of almost six billion pounds and in the past year more than seventy per cent of us have had a flutter at least once.

There’s a long held perception here that gambling is just a bit of harmless fun, but if you’re conjuring up an image of bingo halls at the seaside, think again.

On Tonight’s “Britain Loves a Bet” programme we look at the perils and pitfalls of the 21st century flutter.

These days apps and adverts are calling us to gamble wherever we go. On billboards and bus-sides, on computer screens and through our phones... in modern Britain virtually everyone has a casino in their handbag or in their trouser pocket!

A billboard advertising an online bingo website. Credit: Tonight

Most adults gamble. Just as most adults drink alcohol. And up to half a million people in the UK are now thought to have a serious gambling addiction. That’s a similar number to those who are hooked on illicit drugs.

Liz Karter is an addiction therapist and the author of ‘Women & Problem Gambling’:

If you, a friend or relative have been affected by gambling, then there are places to seek help:

  • Gamblers Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who have joined together to tackle problem gambling and to help others do the same.
  • Gam-Anon provides information, resources and contacts for those who are affected by other peoples gambling problems.
  • GamCare provides support, information and advice to anyone suffering through a gambling problem. Call them on 0808 8020 133.
  • Grasp Group helps and advises problem gamblers, focusing on prevention rather than cure, and raises awareness of problem gambling.

Tonight we hear from a pensioner who fell prey to the lures of internet slot machines and saw a hundred thousand pounds pass through her hands.

Another problem gambler tells us how he tried to use the gaming industry’s system to keep him out of bookmaker’s shops - and how it failed him at every turn.

We examine the buck-passing that’s holding up attempts to tackle the problem.

The gambling industry says the government should do more to help, but the regulator says it’s up to the firms themselves to take the lead... and so, like a roulette wheel, round and round it goes.

A roulette table

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of our investigation, however, was not the problem at present, but how our children - the next generation of gamblers - are being exposed to the sights, sounds and symbols of the betting world.

They’re being lured in their droves to colourful websites offering slot machine and poker games with “virtual money” as the stake and the prize.

Players can spend real cash to buy tokens, but they can’t win it back.

These free to play games are described in the developers’ blurb as “frequent, intense, simulated gambling”, but since they don’t offer real money prizes they’re completely unregulated... it’s perfectly legal for children to play.

The game developers have been accused of "grooming" children through these games... an allegation they strongly deny.

A mobile app offering virtual money prizes Credit: Tonight

They say they're designed for middle aged women and children don't play them. But a poll last year found 11% of 11-15 year olds questioned had played free Facebook gambling games in the previous week and 5% had played free online poker sites.

We carried out our own study, it wasn't as thorough but the results were interesting... at the primary school we visited (a parish school in a small rural community), 20% of the children we spoke to said they'd played free casino games online.

And at a secondary school in Manchester, 30% of the youngsters we spoke to said they played on free gambling sites.

It’s easy to see a pathway from the free sites to the murky world of real money gambling. It's paved with gold for the industry and pitfalls for the players... and, at the moment, it's all operating completely within the law.