Why does the National Lottery have a different regulatory rulebook?

April 17, 2018

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Mankind has always had an appreciative and abiding relationship with gambling throughout its history. The world’s earliest six-sided die was known to have dated back as far ago as 3,000 BC, while lotteries were used as a form of fundraising under Chinese Empire’s from 200 BC and under the Roman Empire from 20 BC.

In the UK, the first recorded lottery was drawn by Queen Elizabeth in 1569, and fetched a handsome £5,000 for the winner from a bet of 10 shillings (the equivalent of about 50p).

Just like today, there were also runner-up prizes, and just like today, the lottery was used as a fundraising technique for the incumbent government. But 16th Century lottery was a lot more like a raffle than the 21st Century Lotto: numbers were drawn from a hat, if your number came up, you were the winner. There was no matching 6 numbers or anything like that.

The old-fashioned lottery ran until its welcome death in 1826, and wasn’t revived again until 1994 under the Conservative government of John Major. Since its re-inception, the lottery has always been viewed through rose-tinted spectacles and became ingrained in British culture almost immediately.

The first drawing of the National Lottery was watched live on TV by 22 million people in the UK, and today more than 70% of over 18’s still take part on a regular basis.

But why, when the gambling industry is treated with such scorn and disgust, does the National Lottery receive such an easy ride from the media? Why are slot games the root of all evil yet the National Lottery is “just a bit of fun”?

Just A Bit of Fun?

25% of British people buy a National Lottery scratchcard every month, 50% of British people buy three tickets for the lotto every month, and, unlike any other form of gambling, the National Lottery is open to 16 and 17-year-olds. Is the lottery not simply a gateway drug to a bigger problem?

It definitely looks that way. Earlier this year scratchcards became the UK’s second most popular form of gambling after the National Lottery. Costs range from £1 to £10 per card and any number of cards can be bought at any one time. Thanks to websites such as Lottoland, those cards can now be bought online.


There are stories of addiction too. On the GamCare forum, there is a thread titled, “My Mum is addicted to Scratch cards”. Here’s a passage from the post,

“I remember years ago where she would maybe do 1 card a week, which progressed to a few cards on the weekend. Recently it progressed [sic] 8 cards everyday and now we are at around 8 cards four times a day. I tried to gently raise the subject with her a few weeks ago, but she got very defensive saying that it is not worse than drugs an alcohol and is her ‘fun time’ as she doesn’t drink or smoke and is not the same thing as gambling in a casino.

“My problem with all this is not just the amount of time and money she wastes on these cards, but also how she goes about buying them. I can hear her leaving the house at 10.30 at night to run down to the local store to buy more and shes [sic] started to leave the doors open so that she makes less noise leaving and coming back. Also my mum is not so young any more (early 60s) and we don’t live in the safest neighbourhood. I genuinely stress out when she’s out so late at night because I’m worried something might happen to her – can even be her falling down and hurting herself not necessary being attacked.

“I have also noticed that she is now emptying all the bins in the house everyday to hide how many scratch cards she has been through, but I found one plastic bag this morning, opened it and honestly was so worried about the amount of scratch cards in there (at least 30 just from yesterday alone). She does these scratch cards alongside the loterry as well, where she also buys quite a few tickets.”

It’s a classic and sad addiction case, but it’s hardly an exceptional one. There’s more in the thread, there’s this story from 2014, this story from the same year, this one from 2013, and so many more. One of my friends from University had an addiction so bad that at one point he was buying up to £500’s worth of National Lottery tickets a weekend in an attempt to recover losses.

The Golden Child

But the National Lottery continues to have a burgeoning reputation. It’s been lauded as the reason for the UK’s recent Olympic success in Beijing, London and Rio, it raised £750,000,000 towards hosting the 2012 games, and over £1m is collected yearly for National Lottery projects. But at what cost? Whereas the taxes raised by bookmakers are seen as “exploitative”, taxes raised by the National Lottery are in “the national interest”. The lottery has a status, and a position, that PR pros could only dream of reaching.

And when it comes to regulation, The National Lottery are playing with a different rulebook. Literally. On the UK Gambling Commission’s website the lottery has a whole different section with different guidelines, and if you’ve ever seen a National Lottery advert you’d have noticed how different they are to that of bookmakers. Whereas National Lottery ads come across as jovial featuring personal success stories pulling on emotional heartstrings, bookmakers’ adverts using the same code wouldn’t make it past development.

So this prompts the question, while the UK Gambling Commission is supposed to be an independent, public body, is its relationship with the UK government too cosy? Can a commission exist and be truly independent when it is simply an arm, and an extension, of the administration?

Throughout its centuries-long history, the lottery has been a money-making scheme for government. Surely in the 21st Century that can’t be an excuse for lax regulation and a whole different playing field? It’s time for the National Lottery to start playing by the same rules as everyone else.

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