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Will the casino’s wheels turn against the punter?

Martini-sipping James Bond lookalikes stand at the roulette table, place their bets and despite the impossible odds, win thousands of pounds. It is an enduring image of casinos that the gaming industry has spent hours this week trying to dispel in front of a parliamentary select committee.

Ministers want to liberalise Britain’s gambling laws, making it easier for casinos to be opened with a wider range of games and unlimited jackpots. In March it published proposals that it said will “modernise” the industry with the effect that profits for the casino operators will jump by £500m along with a big boost for tax revenues for the exchequer.

For the first time, punters will be able to place bets with credit cards, without waiting 24 hours to become a member. As a result some of the estimated 400,000 people who fly over to Las Vegas each year are expected to stay in this country, where it will be relatively easy to find Vegas-style hotel-cum-casinos lined with slot machines.

But the select committee for culture, media and sport is concerned about the likelihood that gambling addiction will rise, plus the impact on jobs and the potential for an increase in crime.

It has been hearing submissions from industry, academics and groups concerned with the social welfare of gamblers that get hooked.

There are an estimated 350,000 addicted gamblers in the UK, according to Gamblers Anonymous. The group’s spokesman, Patrick, says little research has been conducted into why people gamble or the effects of this. He argues that until either the government or the industry pays for research, it should hold back from pushing through reforms.

“The government has realised that gambling is the fastest growing leisure activity and good luck to them. The tax it will receive will replace the declining tax on fags and booze. But it should do the research before it launches into this,” he says.

Ministers have said the industry should set aside £3m for the rehabilitation and care of UFA gambling addicts, but there is so far no sign of any research.

Gamcare, the industry-funded body that promotes a responsible attitude to gambling, agrees that more research needs to be conducted into the impact casinos will have. It suggests the local population should be given the chance to vote on applications by casino operators.

The major transformation brought about by the new laws will be a growth in the number of slot machines. They are already the third most popular gambling activity after Lotto (the renamed National Lottery) and scratchcards and they appeal to 18 to 24-year-olds and older women, according to a report by the National Centre for Social Research which looked at behaviour in 2000.

It is unlikely the number of gamblers will increase dramatically, but the amount that existing gamblers spend is expected to rise many times over.

Bingo hall operator Gala says customers are likely to be taxi drivers and small businessmen in their 30s and 40s who spend £30 to £40 on roulette, craps and slot machines and, when they’ve lost it, go home.

John, a 48-year-old secondary school teacher, disagrees. He is broke and has just a few slices of bread in his fridge. For the past week he has been “clean”. For nine months last year he was clean. But in the intervening periods he has blown most of his cash in betting shops and slot machines.

He started gambling when he was eight, during a trip to Blackpool. He hit the jackpot on the slot machines and kept coming back for more.

Through his teens, like many contemporaries, John gambled on and off, but by the time he was 25 John says he was addicted. By then, he was living in South Africa.

“I didn’t know I was a compulsive gambler. You are always in denial about it, but I lost jobs over it. My marriage broke down. I thought it was just that we were incompatible, but later I found out it was the gambling,” he admits.

He came back to Britain in the late 90s after a long period of avoiding betting, but was drawn back to South Africa by £15,000 he had left behind to pay off the remainder of the mortgage on his flat.

A casino near his school beckoned; 15 visits later, he had blown the lot. His brother gave him the air fare back to Britain but he gambled that too. Eventually he made it back to the UK after finding a buyer for his battered car.

Now he works all week as a maths teacher and weekends as a security guard. “It is a big danger that people in their early 20s get hooked after winning a jackpot, like me. These new laws will make it easier to find slot machines with big jackpots. When you win one of these, I think you are more likely to become addicted.”

Peter Collins, director of the Centre for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Salford, says one way to limit the potential for addiction is for the government to switch tack and restrict casino licences to just a few towns.

His proposals centre on the potential to create jobs in rundown seaside towns like Margate and Blackpool, but he told the select committee that it would also limit the ability of gamblers to feed their addiction if they needed to travel long distances.

“It is true that not much research has been carried out. Yet we do know that gambling is impulsive, so if there are slot machines in the supermarket, a nearby bingo hall and a local casino without any membership restrictions, then you increase the risk substantially,” he says.

The group behind proposals to develop Blackpool into an Atlantic City-style gaming resort with a £130m Egyptian-themed Pharoah’s Palace as its centrepiece, claims restricting the number of towns able to licence casinos will boost local economies and ease addiction fears.

Gamblers Anonymous is not so sure. It reckons the explosion in the number of slot machines in all kinds of venues will cause more problems than the government currently estimates.

It believes 1% of the population has the potential to have a gambling problem. Research in the US, Canada and Australia points to a figure of 3% – which would put nearly 2m of us in the frame.