We are gambling away our freedoms

New limits on online slot games put us on the slippery slope to full prohibition.

Jon Bryan

Topics Politics UK

The UK government announced last week that a new betting limit for online slot games will be introduced later this year. For those aged between 18 and 24, the maximum spend will now be only £2 per spin. Meanwhile, those aged 25 and over will be able to spend up to £5. Until now, there was no limit at all on online slots – adults were free to spend their own hard-earned cash however they saw fit.

These restrictions have been expected ever since the government announced a review of gambling legislation in March last year. They follow the similarly illiberal crackdown on physical fixed-odds betting terminals in 2019, which cut the maximum spend per bet from £100 to just £2.

Anti-gambling campaigners have long lobbied hard for these stake limits on less-regulated online slots. They have argued that they are essential for the protection of public health and for limiting problem gambling.

It is true that there is a higher rate of problem gambling associated with online gambling than with gambling in a betting shop or a casino. But it’s not clear that introducing stake limits will have the impact these campaigners desire – that is, actually reducing or tackling addiction. For starters, more and more illegal gambling sites are cropping up all the time for people to turn to. Failing that, addicts may simply move on to other, legal types of gambling that have fewer restrictions. Indeed, the government’s limits on fixed-odds betting terminals have themselves played a role in the rise of online slot machines.

While the betting limit may not help gambling addicts all that much, it will undoubtedly have plenty of consequences for everyone else. One of the most overlooked repercussions of the new restrictions is that they will essentially create a new category of adulthood between the ages of 18 and 24. Legally in the UK, you are an adult from the day you turn 18. You are then trusted to vote, smoke, buy alcohol and enter into legal contracts. Why should the rules for gambling be any different?

‘Ongoing neurological development’ is a commonly cited reason for placing greater restrictions on young adults. But there’s no logical reason why this should be limited to gambling. Surely, if we can trust an 18-year-old to vote for a government – which we absolutely should – then we should surely trust them to have a go on an online slot machine.

In any case, you can bet your bottom dollar that the crackdown on gambling won’t end with these stake limits. Indeed, as soon as the government made its announcement, the same anti-gambling campaigners who have fought tooth and nail for these measures immediately complained that they do not go far enough. Ultimately, their goal is to ban gambling outright and they will not rest until this happens.

Take gambling-policy adviser James Noyes. Back in 2020, he produced a report for the Social Market Foundation calling for stake limits on online gaming to be limited to between £1 and £5. Yet when the government announced precisely this, he said that a full ban on online slots should now ‘be on the table’.

Similarly, charity Gambling With Lives has claimed that ‘Just cutting stake sizes won’t work’. This raises the question as to why it campaigned for these limits in the first place. Stake limits are still listed as a key demand on the homepage of the Gambling With Lives website.

No matter how much the government tries to appease them, anti-gambling activists are not going to stop clamouring for more regulation. Clearly, they don’t think that adults are capable of making decisions about how they spend their own money. In their eyes, a total ban is the only way to save people from themselves.

These prohibitionists want to police every last one of our pleasures. We cannot let them win.

Jon Bryan is a gambling writer who tweets at @JonBryanPoker. His pamphlet, Risking it all: The Freedom to Gamble, can be bought or downloaded here.

Picture by: John Lamb / Unsplash.

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Topics Politics UK


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