Is Britain ready for Las Vegas?

Parliament debates easing gambling restrictions this week. Proponents cite tourism; critics fear addicts.

Rosie Scott barely looks up. The machine in front of her, named Double Jackpot, requires feeding, and the octogenarian doesn't really want to talk. She prods a succession of coins into the hungry slot and starts punching buttons.

"A casino?" she asks, considering the potential for an upgrade near the slot joint she frequents. "Well, I suppose it's a good idea."

Ms. Scott eyes the rundown interior of Cash City, a primitive joint with a dozen slot machines and a few desultory customers. "But I don't know if I'd go. It's just another place to lose your money."

Britain is bracing itself for a slew of new places to lay down money after the government unveiled plans late last month to revamp gambling laws.

The overhaul would ease restrictions on casinos for the first time in almost 40 years, opening the country up to new Las Vegas-style complexes with hundreds of "slots," some of them offering jackpots of up to a million pounds - something never seen in Britain before.

But the proposed legislation being debated this week is highly controversial. The government says it is aimed at modernizing the industry worth $100 billion in Britain and bringing all forms of gambling, including online bets, under tighter regulation. It would be far better, the government claims, to concentrate gambling in 40 or so megacasinos rather than have slot machines throughout centers where children can access them.

It also argues that casino-building will create tens of thousands of jobs, attract billions in investment, and regenerate some of Britain's faded tourist spots.

Skeptics are not so sure. A powerful alliance of churches, charities, lawmakers, and press has frowned on the move. They lament the looming Las Vegasization of provincial Britain, and warn of problem gamblers, recalling the stories of addicts who have lost homes, jobs, and families.

A recent poll shows that 53 percent of Britons oppose the move for more casinos. Some cynics, meanwhile, see an ulterior motive, noting that more gambling means more tax revenue for the government.

Britons are generally not averse to bets on horse racing or football, but higher-stakes casino gambling strikes many as a counter-cultural.

Indeed, 10 years ago, the beginning of a National Lottery was greeted with suspicion and warnings that it would encourage the poor to squander what little money they had. Today, that prediction has been largely discounted. As for casinos - and there are barely 100 of them at present - they are still often seen as exotic places for the James Bond crowd. Slot machines, meanwhile, are ubiquitous, but their jackpots have been limited to a £2,000 maximum.

The new legislation promises gambling complexes with hundreds of tables and up to 1,250 slots each, some dangling seven-figure prizes in front of bettors. Already, major US players like MGM Mirage and Caesar's are planning their moves.

"The gaming industry has been playing close attention to Britain as market," says Robert Stewart of Caesar's, which is planning a $600 million mega- complex in the shadow of the Wembley football ground. "People believe that the UK would be a very good opportunity," he adds by telephone from Las Vegas.

Wembley hopes that casino development will bring revitalization. Caesar's is sure it can put this washed-out London suburb famous for football back on the map.

"It needs a lot of regeneration, but think about it when it's redone with a brand new stadium," says Mr. Stewart. "Think about a beautiful fountain and plaza and shops and restaurants instead of the concrete you've got there now."

Critics fear that the promise of such dazzling riches - particularly big jackpots - will lure the vulnerable into bad habits and aggravate instances of problem gamblers.

"We have never had big-prize machine gambling before and all over the world that is what's most popular," says Prof. Peter Collins of the Centre for the Study of Gambling at Salford University in northwest England.

Comparisons have been drawn with Australia, which altered its gambling laws a decade ago, encouraging rapid growth in both the number of slots and in the number of problem gamblers.

Around 2 percent of the population are now thought to be hooked. Research published in August linked gambling to middle-aged homelessness: 38 percent of homeless Australians in the survey blamed their plight on gambling, compared to just 4 percent in Britain.

"More opportunities to gamble will lead to increases in problem gambling," says Sarah Miller, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army.

"The only winners in this debate are the government through increased taxation and the gaming industry," she says. "The real losers will be people whose lives have been blighted by gambling."

The issue has opened up a familiar debate in Britain over the extent to which the government should protect individuals from themselves.

To support problem gamblers, authorities will set up a fund to which the new casino operators would contribute £3 million a year.

Stewart says Caesar's would be happy funding such programs, as it does in the US, but resents the suggestion that casinos are rife with gambling addicts.

"The vast majority of our guests come to enjoy gambling as part of the entertainment experience."

But Ms. Miller says that easy access to slot machines mixed with high jackpots is a potent - and risky - recipe.

"We are not talking about a handful of people who might get into trouble; we are talking of hundreds of thousands of people and the knock-on effect on families."

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