A gambling addict has blown the lid on what he says is the shocking reality behind the controversial slot machines costing punters in Hounslow an estimated £2.8m a year.
He described how he left a bookmakers in Hounslow town centre feeling "dizzy, tired and physically sick" after a mammoth session on its fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT), which are widely referred to as the crack cocaine of gambling.
He says he spent seven-and-a-half hours continuously pumping money into the machines at Ladbrokes, in High Street, Hounslow.
During that time, he claims staff spoke to him only to offer tea or coffee and failed to enquire about his wellbeing once.
The gambler, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he saw no evidence of the responsible gambling measures the company claims to have introduced, including a commitment to monitor excessive play.
During his time in the branch, he says he witnessed:
- anger and aggression towards the machines and staff from fellow players who lost vast sums
- crowds gathering behind players to watch
- one player becoming visibly distressed as he lost £900 in the space of half an hour
Despite what he described as an atmosphere of "desperation, depression and intimidation", akin to people seeking their fix in a drugs den, he says floor staff only approached the machines once - after a player started punching the screen.
"When I left I felt dizzy, tired, and physically sick from the length of time I was staring at moving graphics on a screen, and the mental pressure of losing and winning large sums of money," he told getwestlondon.
"That's not particularly surprising after watching approximately 1,350 virtual 'spins' of a roulette wheel in a row with no one asking if I was OK."
The gambler, who lives in Richmond and works as a senior executive, claimed Ladbrokes was not alone in having lax controls and he would have expected a similar experience had he chosen to visit any of the other bookmakers in the town centre that day.
'We take responsible gambling very seriously'
A Ladbrokes spokesperson said: "At Ladbrokes we take responsible gambling very seriously and despite gambling related harm across the betting industry remaining low, we are continuing to implement measures to help those who may develop gambling related problems.
"We have looked into these claims and whilst some of the statistics seem to be exaggerated, we recognise that (name removed) has problems with his gambling and have therefore shared the details of our multi-operator self-exclusion scheme with him."
Hounslow town centre has been highlighted as one of the UK's hot spots for FOBTs by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.
It estimates punters lost £2.8m on the machines last year in Hounslow High Street, where there are 44 such terminals spread across 11 bookmakers.
The gambler who contacted us said the proliferation of pay day loan companies and pawnbrokers in Hounslow was no coincidence, given the abundance of FOBTs on their doorsteps.
'Self-exclusion not working'
He said he was able to manage his addiction to a degree, enabling him to hold down a high-powered job, as his salary was paid into his wife's account, who limits his access to cash.
But he feels for the younger gamblers he sees glued to the machines, including one young one man whom he watched leave "ashen faced" after feeding a £2,000 wad of notes into a machine in the space of half an hour.
He backs calls for the maximum stake to be slashed from £100 to £2 but believes the industry must go further and introduce a compulsory membership scheme for those wishing to use FOBTs if it really wants to help those who are unhealthily hooked.
Although addicts can choose to "self-exclude" from bookmakers, he says this is largely ineffective as it relies on often transitory staff recognising problem gamblers.
He says he has self-excluded from outlets in the past, only to walk back in a few months later and use their machines with no questions asked.
But he claims bookmakers are more concerned with protecting their "cash cow" than helping the small minority of gamblers addicted to FOBTs.
'Like carrying a heavy bowling ball on your back'
"I would compare life as an FOBT addict to carrying a heavy bowling ball on your back everywhere you go. It's the government-taxed equivalent of drugs," he said.
"I think bookmakers have been protective of their cash cows, the introduction of which marked a sea change for most gambling addicts like myself. They could and should be doing more to help addicts."
A spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling said: "Whilst signing all players up to (membership) cards would help properly enforce self exclusion, customers who self exclude have already experienced a great deal of harm due to the addictive roulette content and £100-a-spin staking capacity.
"Reducing the maximum stake to £2 a spin would reduce the harm FOBTs cause, as it would prevent users staking up beyond their means.
"So there would be less need for self exclusion if FOBTs were capped at £2 a spin as far fewer users would get addicted."
The government has previously rejected calls to lower the maximum stake, despite the measure having the support of 93 local authorities across the UK, including Hounslow Council.
The government said local authoritories should be making better use of their existing powers to control the presence of betting shops in their area, but the Local Government Association has challenged its ruling.
'A compulsory membership scheme for eight million people would be entirely impractical'
A spokesman for the Association of British Bookmakers said eight million people enjoy spending time in their local bookmakers, which he described as the safest places to gamble.
"A compulsory membership scheme for eight million people would be entirely impractical, in the same way such a scheme would be wholly unworkable for bars and pubs – and 21% of adults have a problem with their drinking, compared to fewer than 1% of adults who have a problem with their gambling," he added.
Regarding the maximum stake, he said the government had only only recently announced its decision and it was "difficult to understand" the justification for the time and money being spent by councils in challenging the outcome.
Paul Hope, programme director at the Gambling Commission, said: "Account-based play brings some advantages in terms of making self-exclusion, age verification and anti-money laundering measures more effective.
"But making account-based play mandatory would also raise issues of personal privacy, which are properly a matter for Parliament.
"Tackling the harm caused by gambling is essential. It is a serious challenge to do so without unduly restricting the freedom of responsible adults to choose how they spend their leisure time.
"We need a sophisticated approach that combines controls on products, and the environments in which they are played, with measures that treat people as individuals.
"So, we expect gambling operators to take active steps to identify people who are at risk of experiencing harm, and to intervene effectively to prevent it."
Police in Hounslow said they had been called out to a number of criminal damage incidents at bookmakers, where angry punters had taken out their frustrations on machines which had swallowed their money.