There will be a quarter of a million new gamblers within a year, after the abolition of strict rules on casino entry caused a surge in first-time visitors, The Times has learnt.
In the five weeks since the change in the law, Britain's 138 casinos have received 100,000 more visits, three times industry estimates. This will translate into 250,000 new casino-goers in a year, according to industry predictions.
The rise comes ahead of a huge expansion in the number of casinos, with 17 new sites opening in 2009 and applications for a further 40 new casinos likely to be approved within months.
Concern is mounting over the massive increase in problem gambling, which has risen fivefold in three years, fuelled by the huge growth of internet gaming. More than 300,000 addicts have sought help.
The strength of the casino boom, following the scrapping of the 24-hour registration period for new visitors, has taken casino operators by surprise and worried anti-gambling groups, which said that gambling addiction was spiralling out of control.
Major Bill Cochrane, from the Salvation Army, said: "This is a larger increase than we had feared, all in just five weeks. The cooling-off period helped to ensure that people made a conscious decision before gambling in a casino on highly addictive games."
Neil Goulden, chief executive of Gala, which operates 32 casinos, told The Times that his company had expected only a third of the new visitors. Penelope, Viscountess Cobham, the head of the British Casino Association (BCA), said her members were reporting a rise in attendances of up to 8 per cent in the past five weeks - equating to approximately 100,000 new visits.
Until this year 2.7 per cent of the population -1.8 million- made 14 million visits to British casinos annually. More than £64 billion a year is spent on all forms of gambling, with spending in casinos rising from £3.1 billion in 1999-2000 to £4 billion in 2003-04.
New casinos continue to open every month, most recently in Stockton-on-Tees a fortnight ago. The newly formed Gambling Commission will continue to accept applications until April 2006 under the old licensing system. The largest of the casinos opening in 2009 will be at least ten times the size of most existing premises and contain £1,000,000 prize slot machines. It can expect at least three million visitors a year.
The gambling industry will get a further boost in 2007 when casinos will be allowed to advertise for the first time. The Gambling Commission is drawing up a code of conduct to regulate the content and location of advertisements, similar to that governing the alcohol industry. This is coinciding with a government crackdown on foreign firms that advertise internet gambling.
The BCA was at loggerheads with the Government at the start of the year because they believed that the reforms favoured overseas competition at their expense. But after a pre-election deal that sharply reduced the opportunities for Las Vegas companies many senior figures in the British casino industry acknowledge that the Gambling Act was good for them.
Mr Goulden said it gave the opportunity for the steady release of restrictions in the UK.
A senior casino executive said this could mean:
- More machines in casinos.
- Higher stakes and prizes.
- Keno and other products
- Permission to use more electronic types of game.
British gambling chiefs are delighted that many of the changes they want to implement will no longer require primary legislation, which could be tricky to push through both Houses of Parliament.
A spokesman for the DCMS said: "The Gambling Act is designed to minimise the harm that gambling can cause. The 24-hour rule for casinos and bingo clubs was removed because it serves no practical purpose in a world where you can walk off the street into a bookmakers or log on to a web casino at the touch of a button."
A spokesman for the BCA said: "We mustn't lose sight of the fact that there are many reasons for going to a casino other than to gamble. People can also enjoy dinner, watch live music and socialise with friends."