Millions have benefited from lottery funds but newer types of gambling are creating a generation of addicts
Twenty years ago when the national lottery was first set up I had a Hogarthian vision of the poor holding sodden lottery tickets in the shadow of the Royal Opera House, throwing away everything on a few random numbers while the rich revelled in yet more revivals of The Ring. I thought this was a pernicious, surreptitious new tax on the poor and would lead them to gamble their lives away, encouraged by a grinning Noel Edmonds and Anthea Turner. How wrong I was.
The national lottery has been a success. There are moments to forget such as the concrete cowpat of the Millennium Dome, the pop museum in Sheffield, the Doncaster Earth Centre and the money sent to Peru to encourage people to eat guinea pigs. But over the years it has been fine-tuned and now works pretty efficiently to help everything from cathedrals to canoeing clubs.
Predicting the outcome of spinning balls has become a national pastime rather than addiction. Some 32 million play regularly, nearly 72 per cent of adults, and they buy on average three tickets a week. Many are in work or family syndicates and it is seen as a cheap form of entertainment rather than gambling.
A few of the 3,600 Lotto-made millionaires have squandered their staggering jackpots but most of those who have gone public have spent their wins not just on cruises and cars, but on hip replacements and their childrenâ€™s university education while putting most in the bank and continuing with their jobs. Nearly 70 per cent buy a new house, usually close to where they already live. On average, they only take 3.4 holidays a year. Occasionally they have indulged in buying a football club, a narrow boat or a fireworks company, but most spend it on new kitchens, hot tubs and even trouser presses.
Other lottery players have been able to dream of how they would spend their millions if they won. Some donâ€™t even bother to check their numbers: Â£2,474,832.30 still hasnâ€™t been collected this year. Itâ€™s the dreaming that counts, a moment of escapism. This is not about hard work, brains, birth or family, itâ€™s pure luck; everyone has the same chance.
But the real winners have been the public. While Â£53 billion has been paid out in prize money, more than Â£32 billion has been raised for â€œgood causesâ€ in 20 years.
As the recession bit and local authorities have cut back, this golden ticket has become crucial for communities, supporting libraries, youth orchestras and hockey clubs, and has helped to save Scottish wildcats, protect Devon barn owls and assist homeless young people in the New Forest.
The national lottery is the good guy. The bad guys slipped in without us noticing after the 2005 Gambling Act. They are the ones who suck money out of those who can least afford it and give little back â€” the betting shops offering fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), the online gambling companies and now the creators of gambling apps.
In Newham, east London, there are 87 betting shops. Each bookmaker is allowed four FOBTs a shop; you can lose Â£20,000 an hour on virtual roulette before turning to the blackjack. FOBTs have been shown to be four times more addictive than anything else in a bookmakerâ€™s. More than Â£46 billion a year is now put into these terminals, a 50 per cent rise in four years. The number of betting shops has risen from 8,500 to 9,100 in two years while other shops on the high street struggle to recover from the austerity years.
Land-based bookies now make half their profits from these terminals â€” accruing Â£1.55 billion in revenue from 33,319 machines in the past year. The Gambling Prevalence Survey found that the machines are almost exclusively used by men on low incomes â€” particularly the unemployed â€” as well as students, the retired and those from ethnic minorities.
Every computer with internet access has the potential to become a virtual casino; every smartphone can have a gambling app. Many online casinos offer a â€˜free-to-playâ€ version to introduce new players but the odds change in favour of the house when you start handing over money. Access to your bank account is only a click away and you can play 24 hours a day.
The previous government and the present one have gone out of their way to help this industry. They have allowed gambling to be advertised on television â€” last year there were 1.39 million gambling adverts, accounting for 4.1 per cent of all TV advertising â€” and have condoned the takeover of the high street by betting shops.
Ministers have half-heartedly tried to address the problem. From next month, gambling must be taxed according to where customers are based rather than where the online operator is registered (no more registering in Gibraltar to avoid UK tax). This wonâ€™t restrain gambling, but it will put more back in the countryâ€™s coffers. Gambling companies have also introduced voluntary spending limits and three-second breaks between bets for FOBTs. The government should go further; it should ban gambling advertising from TV before 9pm, set daily spending limits on FOBTs, and scrutinise gambling apps.