15th October 2004 Britain faces an epidemic of gambling addiction as American corporations prepare to build vast Las Vegas-style casino complexes in every major town, experts warned yesterday.
There are fears that crime will increase, lives will be ruined and families destroyed as punters lured by the promise of big-money prizes become hooked.
The amount of money spent by British gamblers has risen fivefold in just three years to hit £40billion. Currently there are an estimated 300,000 "problem gamblers" here, but analysts warn there could be 700,000 within six years.
Now, with the Government set to sweep away restrictions on the UK gaming market next year, operators have already submitted 100 planning applications for casinos.
But there will be no central control on how many are built, with local planners left to decide.
The Gambling Bill goes before Parliament within the next fortnight and could become law by the summer. Critics are particularly worried at the prospect of huge halls of up to 1,250 gaming machines offering £1million prizes.
Peter Cox, of the gambling addiction support group GamCare, said: "The problem with machines is that you can chase your losses instantly, gambling impulsively as the adrenaline takes hold. People end up mesmerised."
At the moment Britain has 126 casinos, with restrictions on the number of slot machines and jackpots limited to £2,000.
Tim Batstone, president of the UK's casino trade association BACTA, said: "The Government's plans are going to open the floodgates to gambling addiction, crime and corruption on a major scale.
"Ministers are naive if they think the U.S. operators will be content with a few big regional casinos."
London alone has eight casino planning applications pending, including the Millennium Dome site, Covent Garden, Wembley and Piccadilly Circus.
There are four bids for Liverpool, two for Manchester, four for Aberdeen. But smaller towns such as Aylesbury, Margate and Torquay are being targeted.
Dr Emanuel Moran, chairman of the National Council on Gaming and adviser to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "The more gambling there is and the more it is promoted, the more there will be casualties.
"For a party which claims to be concerned with the family, it's a very bizarre way of proceeding to encourage excessive gambling."
In an interview today, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell says casino operators should not assume they will automatically get a UK licence.
A Gambling Commission to be appointed next year will be able to shut or fine any casino that does not act in a socially responsible way, she warns.
And casinos will face an "impact test" every three years. If one is deemed responsible for a dramatic rise in gambling, it will be closed. If £1million jackpot machines become a social liability, they too could be banned.
This story first appeared in the . For more great stories like this, buy the Daily Mail every day.