42 Minutes, £2,600 Lost: The U.K.’s Growing Gambling Problem

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LONDON — Tony Franklin entered a betting shop in northwest London one morning last week and paid 300 pounds, or around $400, into a gambling machine — and lost that money within 16 minutes.

Then he paid in another £300. Then a further £1,000 six minutes later. And 20 minutes after that, a final £1,000.

Within 42 minutes, Mr. Franklin had lost £2,600, the latest relapse in a decades-long gambling addiction that he reckons has cost him more than a million pounds, his marriage, several jobs and his relationship with his three children.

“I just don’t know why I go in, and this is the problem,” Mr. Franklin, 46, said a few hours later. “You know you’re going to lose.”

Mr. Franklin has been trying to quit gambling for years. What usually drags him back in is a particular kind of gambling machine, known as a fixed odds betting terminal, that lies at the heart of a bitter debate about the future of British gambling. Campaigners and some researchers say the machine is an unusually addictive form of gambling that is sucking billions out of Britain’s poorest communities, and some hope it will be banned after a government review next month.

But bookmakers, backed by other researchers, counter that there is no clear evidence that the machine is any more addictive than other kinds of gambling — like the online casino, a product that is restricted in the United States but legal in Britain. They warn that banning the machines, which are found only in British betting shops and provide more than half their profits, would lead to the loss of thousands of jobs.

For campaigners, a set of statistics published in August by the Gambling Commission, which regulates the British gambling industry, highlighted the urgency of the matter: It suggested that the number of British “problem gamblers,” or people whose lives are damaged by their gambling, had risen by almost 50 percent between 2012 and 2015, from 280,000 to 430,000.

The bookmakers, though, pointed to a line in the report that said the rate of problem gambling had remained “statistically stable,” because both figures are small compared with the British population as a whole.

The history of fixed odds betting terminals is under less dispute. They were introduced into British betting shops in 2001, at a time when the government of Tony Blair, then the prime minister, was accelerating the gambling industry’s transformation, as the academic David Runciman has argued, from one that was permitted only to meet demand into one that was allowed to stimulate it.

Today, there are roughly 33,000 such machines spread across Britain’s 9,000 betting shops. They collectively provided a profit of more than £1.8 billion last year, far more than those outlets made from bets on horse races, dog races and soccer matches combined.

Roughly half of the terminals are supplied by a subsidiary of a company headed by the American businessman Ronald Perelman, who is friends with President Trump. The configuration of the machines themselves is unique to Britain, partly because their settings are illegal in some other countries.

The machines allow users to place bets of up to £100, once every 20 seconds, on computerized casino games such as roulette.

While researchers are divided on the subject, many gambling addicts say that the machines’ singular features make them uniquely addictive and uniquely harmful, both accelerating the rate of loss and decreasing the waiting time between bets.

“It’s a gambler’s dream,” said Jason Haddigan, a former addict who wrote about his decades-long addiction in a new book, “How and Why I Conned the Bookies.” “You get the buzz straightaway and you get hooked straightaway.”

Bookmakers dispute these claims. There is “no link between gaming machines in betting shops and problem gambling,” said Gary Follis, a spokesman for the Association for British Bookmakers, citing the Gambling Commission’s recent report, which suggested that problem gamblers tend to use several different gambling products.

Bookmakers also argue that the campaign against fixed odds betting terminals is backed by people who make money from other kinds of gambling, and say that banning the machines would force many shops to close, leading to job losses.

That argument strikes campaigners as myopic, given the social damage they say the machines are already causing to some of Britain’s poorest communities.

Figures from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling suggest that there are twice as many such terminals in the country’s 55 most deprived areas as there are in the 115 richest districts (which contain the same population), and more than double the losses.

“Socially, it’s decimating communities,” said Carolyn Harris, a Labour Party lawmaker who heads a parliamentary group that discusses the machines. “The less money you put in these machines, the more disposable income people will have to put into other businesses,” she said, adding that banning them would “boost the economy and create employment.”

Research commissioned by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling in 2015 suggested that for every 5,000 jobs that might be created by the machines, a further 25,000 jobs would be lost.

Campaigners want to ban the terminals — or at the very least to lower the maximum bet to £2. But the betting industry has so far fought such a successful countercampaign that Parliament has yet to add any new restrictions. (It emerged this month that members of Parliament had accepted a greater amount of gifts and hospitality from Ladbrokes Coral, Britain’s biggest betting company, than from any other source in the past year.)

Part of the problem facing Parliament is that different investigations into the machines’ addictiveness have drawn different conclusions, making it easy for bookmakers to argue that there is not enough evidence to support changing the law.

A 2007 survey by the National Center for Social Research showing that the machines were the most common cause of gambling addiction in Britain was contradicted by other surveys the organization conducted in 2010 and 2012. Most controversially, the waters were also muddied by a 2014 report commissioned by GambleAware, Britain’s largest gambling addiction charity, that said more research was needed to discern a causal link between gambling machines and gambling addiction.

Critics of the gambling industry say these discrepancies have been subtly encouraged by the industry itself.

After interviewing 67 stakeholders in the British gambling industry, Rebecca Cassidy, a professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, concluded that academic research into gambling was “a second-rate field” because of the proliferation of industry-financed research projects.

To comply with British law, the country’s bookmakers must voluntarily donate money each year for research into and treatment of problem gambling. But most do this solely through GambleAware, which funded the controversial 2014 research into fixed odds betting terminals.

As a result, GambleAware is now the largest single source of financing for British gambling research, while simultaneously attracting claims that it is too close to the companies it is supposed to be examining impartially.

The Charity Commission, which regulates British charities, has ruled that there is no conflict of interest to the way that GambleAware commissions research. The charity itself also says that it operates independently of the industry, and works to research guidelines set by another regulatory body.

“There’s no question of money coming in with strings attached,” Iain Corby, GambleAware’s deputy chief executive, said in an interview, adding later, “We are the good guys.”

But the charity has attracted criticism because until recently, roughly half of its trustees were representatives of the gambling industry.

The government is due to release a long-awaited review of fixed odds betting terminals in October, and campaigners hope it will recommend increased restrictions on their use.

Yet others, including Mr. Franklin, say the government needs to reform not just machine gambling, but also the industry as a whole.

The controversial machines “are just one part of a massive problem,” he said. “One part of the cradle-to-grave electronic gambling extraction business that is causing untold unhappiness in this country.”