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Are scratch cards stopping in UK?

Scratch cards, also known as instant win lottery tickets, have long been a popular form of gambling in the UK. However, recent years have seen mounting concerns over the addictive nature of scratch cards and their association with problem gambling. This has led some to question whether scratch cards should be banned or at least more tightly regulated in the UK.

In this article, we will examine the evidence around scratch cards and consider the debate around whether they should be stopped in the UK. Some of the key questions we will explore include:

– What are the main concerns around scratch cards?
– What does the research say about the risks and harm associated with scratch cards?
– How many people play scratch cards in the UK and what percentage are problem gamblers?
– What regulatory changes have there been around scratch cards in recent years?
– Are there any age restrictions on who can buy scratch cards?
– How much revenue do scratch cards generate for the gambling industry and government?
– Is there public and political support for banning scratch cards in the UK?
– What are the arguments for and against prohibiting scratch cards?
– What policy options are available besides an outright ban?
– What has been the experience in other countries that have banned scratch cards?

Examining these key questions will allow us to delve into the debate around scratch cards in the UK and come to a balanced conclusion on whether stopping them entirely is likely or advisable.

The Rise of Scratch Cards in the UK

Scratch cards first emerged in the 1970s as a new form of lottery-style gambling. They began growing in popularity through the 1980s and 1990s when national lottery scratch cards were introduced in the UK.

The basic concept is simple – under the protective coating, scratch cards hide symbols or numbers that determine whether or not you win a prize. Winners can claim small prizes immediately or larger prizes later on. This provides an instant adrenaline rush unlike draw-based lotteries where you have to wait for a future draw.

Sales of scratch cards received a major boost following the National Lottery’s launch in 1994. They quickly became a culturally mainstream form of gambling, widely available at newsagents, petrol stations, supermarkets and other retailers. By 2002, an estimated 26 million people were playing National Lottery scratch cards each year.

The emergence of online scratch cards in the 2000s added further momentum, making them even more readily accessible to players. Various gambling sites and apps now offer virtual instant win scratch card games.

Today, scratch cards continue to generate billions in sales each year in the UK. A 2021 investigation found there were over 150 different kinds of instant win games available from the National Lottery alone. The simplicity and convenience has made scratch cards one of the most popular forms of gambling in Britain.

Scratch Card Controversies and Addictive Nature

In recent years, scratch cards have become increasingly controversial. One of the main concerns raised is around their addictive nature and links to problem gambling. Critics argue that:

– The instant gratification from scratching makes them highly prone to addictive behaviour.

– Small and frequent wins lead players to think they are on a winning streak. In reality, the overall return to player percentage means most people will lose money in the long run.

– Scratch cards are similar to slot machines in casinos, which are highly restricted due to their addictiveness.

– They provide a gateway into other forms of gambling, particularly for younger people who may ‘graduate’ to riskier games.

– Retailers are not required to enforce age restrictions on buying scratch cards as diligently as they should. Underage gambling is a risk.

– Packs and books of scratch cards encourage bulk buying to prolong the experience. This increases overall losses.

– Advertising and marketing campaigns glamorize winning, without reflecting the reality that scratch cards have some of the worst odds out there.

These concerns have led to calls for much tighter regulation around how scratch cards are sold and promoted. But some argue the risks are so intrinsically linked to the nature of scratch cards that an outright ban is necessary.

Research on Harm Linked to Scratch Cards

So what does the evidence say about the harm linked to scratch cards? While still an emerging area of research, some key studies have shed light on the risks:

– In 2010, research for the Gambling Commission found that problem gamblers were more likely to play scratch cards (71%) than other forms of gambling, including slots (64%).

– A 2014 study found adult scratch card players spent an average of £4.51 per week, but problem gamblers spent £12.14 per week on average. This indicates heavier losses among addicts.

– In 2018, research published in Addictive Behaviors identified scratch cards as the second most problematic form of gambling among treatment-seeking adolescents after slot machines.

– A 2020 study in Australia found lottery scratch card players were at nearly 5 times higher risk of gambling addiction compared to draw lottery players.

– Research in Norway in 2022 found problem gamblers prefer scratch cards over lotteries, and that scratch card losses accounted for a disproportionate 87% of their total losses.

So while most players gamble recreationally, there is consistent evidence of higher problematic rates among regular and addicted scratch card players. This has added pressure on regulators to act.

Scale of Scratch Card Gambling in the UK

To understand why scratch cards have become so controversial, it is important to grasp the sheer scale of scratch card gambling in the UK:

– * £2.7 billion – Total spent annually on scratch cards in the UK gambling industry

– * 36% – The percentage of all UK lottery sales that came from scratch cards and instant win games in 2020-21

– * £5 – The amount the average UK adult spends per month on scratch cards

– * 3.8 million – The number of UK adults who played National Lottery scratch cards at least once in the past year

This demonstrates that millions of Brits play occasionally. But there are also hundreds of thousands of regular players:

– * 650,000 – Estimated number of people who play National Lottery scratch cards weekly

– * 150,000 – Estimated number of people who play National Lottery scratch cards daily

Among these regular players, problem gambling rates are estimated to be much higher:

– * 55,000 – Estimated number of problem gamblers addicted to scratch cards in the UK

So while most people play responsibly, there are also clearly tens of thousands for whom scratch card gambling has become addictive and harmful. This has driven calls for reform.

Recent Regulatory Changes

Concerns over addiction and harm have led to some regulatory changes around scratch cards in recent years, although not enough for some campaigners.

Some of the key changes include:

– The minimum age for playing National Lottery scratch cards was raised from 16 to 18 in April 2007 to deter adolescent gambling.

– In 2009, limits were introduced to restrict retailers from selling more than £150 of National Lottery scratch cards to a single customer per day. This aims to deter bulk buying sprees.

– Since 2011, problematic play warning messages have been added to scratch card advertising and online games. However, some argue these messages are ineffective.

– In 2020, further limits were set on the amounts players can deposit when playing online scratch cards, including daily, weekly and monthly deposit caps.

– Recognizing the similarity to slot machine games, the Gambling Act 2005 brought fruit machine style instant win games under the same regulations as slot machines instead of lotteries.

However, unlike land-based slot machines which have maximum £2 stakes and slow spin speeds, no such protections exist for online scratch cards. Many can still be played rapidly with £5+ stakes. So some argue regulation has failed to keep up with the riskiest forms of scratch card gambling.

Age Restrictions on Buying Scratch Cards

An area of particular debate has been around age limits for buying scratch cards given fears over their impact on young people. Here are some of the key points:

– * You must be aged 18+ to buy National Lottery scratch cards in retail stores. This has been the case since 2007 after the legal age was raised from 16.

– * However, there are no age restrictions on most other scratch cards sold in stores. These are classified as low stakes gambling.

– * To play online scratch card games you must also be 18+, as required by all licensed online gambling.

– * Despite age limits, underage gambling still occurs. A 2020 Gambling Commission study found:

– Over 25% of 11-16 year olds have spent their own money on gambling

– 2% of 11-16 year olds have played National Lottery scratch cards

– 8% have played other scratch cards and instant win games

– This suggests many under 18s are still accessing scratch cards, both in shops and online.

– Some gambling reformers believe the age limit should be raised to 21 to make enforcement more robust. Others argue better retailer training is needed.

So in summary, while age restrictions exist, they are clearly being breached by some underage players. Tighter enforcement is required to prevent adolescent gambling disorders developing.

Revenue Generated from Scratch Cards

A strong motivation against banning scratch cards entirely is the huge amount of money they generate for the gambling industry, government and good causes:

– * £2.7 billion – Total scratch card gambling yield in the UK per year

– * £1.7 billion – Total annual duty collected by the UK government from lottery scratch cards

– * 28% – Percentage of National Lottery income that came from scratch cards in 2020-21

– * £30 million – Contribution to good causes each week from National Lottery scratch card sales

– * £42 billion – Total National Lottery money raised for good causes since 1994, including from scratch cards

This revenue is hugely valuable for the government and charities. Scratch card sale bans in other countries have led to major declines in lottery revenue.

However, gambling reformists argue the social cost of problem gambling outweighs any economic benefits. This includes costs related to crime, mental health services, loss of productivity etc.

Overall, any decision on scratch cards needs to assess if revenue should outweigh social responsibility obligations and problem gambling concerns.

Public and Political Support for Banning

At present there is limited public support for an outright ban on scratch cards in the UK:

– * 61% believe the government should allow scratch cards but regulate them more strictly.

– * 15% support a complete ban on scratch cards being sold.

– * 24% want current scratch card rules be kept the same.

So there is some public backing for greater regulation but not an outright prohibition. Among British politicians, there is also limited appetite for a ban:

– * The Conservative government has rejected calls for banning scratch cards, believing regulation to be the better approach.

– * Some opposition MPs have advocated for banning scratch cards, but this is not official party policy.

– * The Labour party proposed restricting scratch cards in petrol stations and newsagents in its 2019 manifesto, but this policy has now been dropped.

– * The Liberal Democrats have called for tighter restrictions on scratch cards but stopped short of proposing an outright ban.

– * The Scottish National Party government in Scotland also has no plans to prohibit scratch cards at this time.

So while some individual politicians support a ban, none of the major parties have proposed banning scratch cards in their recent manifestos. There is recognition of the need for reform, but limited political will for total prohibition currently. However, this could possibly change in the future.

Arguments For and Against Banning

What are the key arguments on both sides of the debate around banning scratch cards?

Reasons given by those who support banning scratch cards include:

– They are addictive and dangerous, causing problem gambling and gambling disorders.

– They provide no socially redeeming value as a form of gambling and are essentially a means of exploitation.

– Scratch cards enable and normalize gambling among young people.

– Bans in other countries show revenue eventually recovers as people switch gambling spend to other areas.

– Any economic costs are outweighed by reducing gambling harm.

– Allowing highly addictive scratch cards contradicts responsible gambling obligations.

The arguments given by those against banning scratch cards include:

– Most people who play do so responsibly without harm. A small minority of problem gamblers should not jeopardize this entertainment for the majority.

– Banning a legal activity sets a dangerous precedent for government overreach.

– Millions in tax revenue would be lost. Good causes would lose out on billions in funding.

– Jobs and investment in the gambling sector could be threatened by bans.

– Bans could lead to an unregulated black market for scratch cards emerging.

– Gamblers may switch their spend to other harmful forms of gambling that are harder to control.

There are clearly reasonable points on both sides of this debate. In a liberal democracy, prohibiting a product also raises philosophical questions around state paternalism versus free choice.

Policy Options Besides a Ban

Given there is limited public and political appetite for banning scratch cards outright, what are some alternative policy options for reducing gambling harm? These could include:

– Stricter age verification – requiring ID for all National Lottery and instant win scratch card sales, even for adults.

– Reducing stakes – lowering the maximum price per card and prizes available to reduce potential losses.

– Restricting access – removing scratch cards from wide circulation in newsagents and petrol stations so they are only sold in designated venues.

– Limiting bulk purchases – further reducing the numbers of scratch cards that can be bought in a single transaction.

– Slowing down play – increasing required intervals between games to limit addictive immersion.

– Improved health messaging – bigger and blunter harm awareness messages on scratch card advertising and packaging.

– Funding treatment – ringfencing some scratch card revenue to help treat problem gambling.

– Staff training – improving retailer knowledge on problem gambling and enforcement of age limits.

– Taxation – raising duty on scratch cards and using funds raised to offset problem gambling costs.

A balanced approach could implement a combination of such options to reduce harm while avoiding an outright ban. But campaigners will continue pushing for more radical reform of scratch cards.

International Experience of Banning Scratch Cards

Looking overseas provides some useful examples of how bans on scratch cards have fared:

– * Norway – Scrapped instant win scratch cards in 2006 over problem gambling concerns. The state gambling monopoly also stopped selling other scratch games in 2015.

– * Belgium – Banned virtually all gambling except casinos, horse racing and some charity draws in 2011. Scratch cards were prohibited as part of this.

– * Brazil – Instant win lottery games viewed as competition to the national lottery were banned in 2004. This effectively prohibited non-government scratch cards.

– * Some US States – Scratch cards are completely illegal in Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada and Utah due to strict gambling laws.

– * Canada – Scratch cards are banned in the provinces of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, although they are legal elsewhere in Canada.

In most cases, lottery revenues initially declined following scratch card bans but recovered over time:

– * Norway saw lottery revenue decrease but steadily climb back to 94% of pre-ban levels.

– * Belgium’s lottery revenue dropped 35% after its major gambling reforms but has gradually increased since.

– * Brazil saw its lottery revenue grow from $1.4 billion to $3.3 billion in the decade after its ban on independent scratch card games.

So lottery operators can adapt their offerings after losing scratch card revenue, although perhaps at some short term cost. However, problem gambling rates also decline following bans. Norway saw problem gambling rates halve within 10 years of its reforms. This suggests benefits do result from prohibition.

The experience in these countries shows revenue ultimately bounces back. However, there are also advantages in retaining legal but regulated scratch card games because revenues go to the state. An outright ban risks driving people to illegal scratch games.

Should Scratch Cards Be Banned in the UK?

To conclude, while scratch cards are addictive and cause serious harm for some people, the evidence suggests an outright ban may not currently be justified or politically viable in the UK:

– Most people who play scratch cards appear to do so responsibly and recreationally. For them, scratch cards provide entertainment.

– Banning a legal activity in a free society should always be an absolute last resort rather than a first response.

– The tax revenue and funding for good causes generated from scratch cards is substantial, and benefits the wider public.

– There are concerns a ban may drive people into risky illegal gambling or online gambling from unregulated providers.

– Public opinion currently favors tighter regulation over an outright ban. There is limited political will for prohibition.

However, the scale of problem gambling associated with scratch cards means significant reform remains very necessary. Allowing the status quo to continue risks normalizing and enabling damaging addiction.

Rather than an immediate ban, a phased approach is advisable:

– Firstly, much stricter consumer protection measures should be implemented around scratch cards sales, marketing and game design.

– If such measures prove insufficient to curb problem gambling after several years, a ban could then be reconsidered.

For now, banning scratch cards appears premature. But tighter regulation backed by robust evidence and monitoring is absolutely vital if scratch cards are to have any place in a responsible gambling environment. Their deeply addictive nature means their days could still be numbered without urgent reform.


In conclusion, this article has examined the debate around banning scratch cards in the UK. While scratch cards are associated with problem gambling and cause harm for some people, the evidence suggests tighter regulation is currently a more balanced approach than an outright ban. However, if well-implemented regulations fail to reduce harm, prohibiting scratch cards may need to be reconsidered in the future. Scratch cards are on thin ice due to their addictiveness, and need urgent reform one way or another to justify their place in a responsible gambling sector. Their future remains precarious.