The National Lottery – gambling for non-gamblers?

The National Lottery – gambling for non-gamblers?
Paul Clare
by Paul Clare Last updated:

The National Lottery is a tremendous force for good in the UK. Beyond the £92 billion paid out in prizes since 1994, an astonishing £48 billion has also made its way to good causes. It’s fair to say that a lot of good work happens in its name. 

As the most popular gambling activity in the United Kingdom, there’s no doubt it has carved out a place in our national culture. The Lottery created 365 millionaires last year alone, as well as donating £1.8 billion to charitable and social projects. It touches, and improves, lives right across the country. 

The National Lottery undeniably creates positive change and It’s a fun activity for the majority of people who take part each week. 

‘Socially acceptable’ gambling

For all its broad ranging positive impacts, the National Lottery is still gambling, with all the social pros and cons that entails. Casinos and sportsbooks are often seen as ‘harder’ forms of gambling, while the National Lottery passes as wholesome, family fun. But is there a darker side to the National Lottery and should it be subject to more scrutiny than is currently the case?

The National Lottery flies under the regulatory radar – somewhat

The National Lottery is often excluded from the glare of regulators – at least, compared to other forms of gambling. Bingo sites, casinos and bookies are subject to scrutiny on a level that’s never directed at the National Lottery. It simply enjoys more freedoms with its 'cultural icon' status.

Around 44% of UK adults gamble once a month or more, around half of whom only play the National Lottery. That’s a huge chunk of the UK population engaged in a particular form of gambling, with the same inherent risks of gambling harms as any other. 

So why does the National Lottery enjoy such leniency? A large part of this is no doubt down to the good work the lottery does with charities and social projects.

Its investment in sport has been responsible for driving a remarkable surge in Olympic success. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, Team GB won a solitary gold medal, and only 15 medals in total. But at the games in Tokyo 2020, some 22 golds were brought home, amongst a total haul of 64 medals – and that's after 29 and 27 golds at the 2012 and 2016 games respectively. This is thanks in no small part to the £345 million of lottery funding directed towards Olympic sports since 1997.

The National Lottery’s funding for youth unemployment programmes, schemes aimed at reducing loneliness and social isolation in old age and others are unquestionably worthwhile causes. But does the National Lottery’s good work justify ignoring any ill-effects from its products

In particular, there are legitimate concerns around its scratch card products, and the impacts these could have on some of those most vulnerable to gambling harms. 

Scratching at a bigger issue

Studies suggest scratch cards entice higher spending in vulnerable consumers – evidence supported by Matt Gaskell, consultant psychologist at the Northern Gambling Service. This service, run by the NHS in conjunction with GamCare, has experience working with a range of problem gamblers.

Gaskell reveals an uneasy truth behind these ‘family-friendly’ gambling products. 

“[scratchcards are] one of the three most common gambling habits among those with a disorder”. 

Scratchcards fall alongside slots and in-play sports betting in the top 3. But while sports betting and slots attract more than their fair share of criticism and regulatory scrutiny, the National Lottery seemingly slides by. Scratch cards are widely available across newsagents, petrol stations and in supermarkets and rarely out of our gaze.

The evidence seems strong – scratch cards can and do contribute to gambling harms, and apparently significantly, according to experts. So why isn’t the National Lottery subject to the same treatment as other gambling operators in the eyes of legislators and regulators?

The National Lottery should get more regulatory attention

Many agree that the National Lottery should be more closely monitored. While no one is asking for it to be regulated out of business, industry voices are right to question why the National Lottery seems to get a free, or free-ish, pass. 

For example, The Betting & Gaming Council, which lobbies on behalf of the gambling industry, recently said the upcoming mandatory levy for Research, Education and Treatment should apply equally to the National Lottery as to other gambling operators. It’s a position that's hard to argue against.

Equally, there are no safeguards in place to stop people from spending beyond their means on lottery tickets and scratch cards. Slot sites offer mandatory tools to help players budget carefully, but this is lacking out there in the local shops where lottery tickets and scratch cards are sold. A best, this contrast is a little hypocritical – at worst, it allows lottery terminal owners to take advantage of those with gambling problems.

With the National Lottery's expansive reach, it truly is ‘gambling for non-gamblers’. But to give it an easy ride is to ignore the very real gambling harms that can come from lottery and scratch card gambling. Regulators need to pay closer attention to the National Lottery, as part of their wider efforts to protect consumers.

Paul Clare
by Paul Clare Last updated:

Paul spent plenty of time in arcades up and down the UK discovering all of the best fruit machines and watching them grow into the incredible online slots we see today. He still loves the basic format but also has a soft spot for games with big bonus rounds that progress as you play. Immortal Romance is one of his favourite slots of all time.