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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
A bit of a gamble?
By Emma Griffiths
BBC News

Gamblers in Las Vegas
High-prize slot machines are not currently allowed in the UK
A big shake-up in the gambling laws has been announced. But what can we learn from Australia?

"Problem gambling" in Australia has been blamed on the laws being eased over the last 20 years.

More than 80% of Australian adults are thought to gamble and its government agrees gambling addiction has become a major social concern.

Particularly popular are a type of slot machine offering prizes of up to 1m, nicknamed "pokies", which began cropping up in pubs and clubs as laws were relaxed.

Nearly half the profits come from the pockets of problem gamblers who lose on average $12,200 (nearly 5,000) a year, says the Australian Salvation Army.

When the money runs out, they often turn to fraud and other criminal activities to fund their habit, families are destroyed and many find themselves made homeless.

'Deluge' of slot machines

In a radio interview in 2001, Prime Minister John Howard said: "There's no doubt that we have an absolute deluge of poker machines in Australia. It's one world record of which I am not in the least bit proud."

In the UK, the new law would mean the introduction of 1m jackpot slot machines and more casinos.

Opponents say this will increase the number of gambling addicts, currently at 300,000, and lead to problems similar to Australia.

The Australian story is a warning against convenience
Professor Peter Collins, Centre for Study of Gambling

Not so, says Professor Peter Collins, Director, Centre for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Salford.

He says there will not be the same "epidemic of pokies" in the UK because the government is restricting them to only the largest casinos.

"The Australian story is a warning against convenience," Professor Collins told BBC News.

"Problem gambling is mostly a problem relating to impulse control.

"If you stick them ["pokies"] in casinos where people have to decide before they go what to do with the kids, how they will travel there, then they will also make a decision about how much to spend.

"But if they walk past venues housing gambling machines on their way to and from work, they will be tempted to drop in and gamble."

The expansion of the casino and high-prize slot machine risks undermining all the good things that have been put in place
Rachel Lampard, Methodist Church
The British Casino Association also thinks it is "ludicrous" to compare the Australian experience with the UK.

The new Bill limits high-prize slot machines to the largest regional casinos and will have a maximum of 1,250 per casino.

But the National Economic Research Associates estimated that 60 regional casinos with 75,000 "pokies" between them could create an extra 400,000 "casino-related problem gamblers" by 2010.

And the Methodist Church, which welcomes aspects of the Bill such as removing fruit machines from fish and chip shops and mini-cab offices, still has concerns.

New law 'to protect gamblers'

Spokeswoman Rachel Lampard said: "There's still the prospect there's going to be 1,250 of those machines in every regional casino and they might be in town centres. So you may still get people wandering home [going in]."

She added that while 1m jackpot machines were restricted others which could have prizes of several thousand pounds, might be more widely available.

"The problem for us is that the massive expansion of the casino and high-prize slot machine risks undermining all the good things that have been put in place," she told BBC News.

"We are going to see an increase in the number of problem gamblers."

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell says social responsibility is at the heart of the new law which needs updating because of the spread of roulette machines in bookmakers and online casinos.

A new law and a Gambling Commission will mean people are better protected, not more at risk, it says.

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