Gambling Age Restrictions in the UK

age verificationThere are so many arbitrary decisions that are made in life that we all accept without any real question. If you went to a pub and ordered a pint when you were seventeen-years and three-hundred-and-sixty-four days old then you would be breaking the law. Do the same thing the following day and you won’t be. Why is it that an eighteen-year-old can be trusted to drink alcohol and not be daft with it but a seventeen-year-old can’t be? Add to that the fact that the law in the UK dictates that it’s OK for an adult to buy beer, cider or wine for someone over sixteen if they’re having a meal at a table in a licensed restaurant and you can see that the whole thing becomes even more complicated. That’s to say nothing of the fact that a child aged five to sixteen can drink alcohol at a private premises such as home without breaking any law. The fact that the United States of America says that people must be over the age of twenty-one to drink alcohol merely serves to confirm the idea of the age selection being arbitrary.

Regardless of the arbitrary nature of the cut off point for the legality of drinking, we all accept it because it is the law. The same thing can be true for the age at which we’re allowed to have sex, drive and, of course, gamble. Just as with alcohol intake, however, there are a host of various different rules and regulations around the age limit for gambling that muddy the waters somewhat. The age you need to be to gamble in a casino or place a bet at a bookmaker’s is different to the age you need to be to buy a lottery ticket, for example. So how were the rules decided on that front? Why is one form of gambling seen as less problematic than another? Should it not be a blanket decision regarding an acceptable age for gambling, regardless of the event that you’re gambling on? That’s not to say that the age should be lowered to sixteen across the board, of course; perhaps some feel that it should be raised to twenty-one. In this piece we’ll explore the various rules, how they came about and what might happen to them in the future.

What Are The Current UK Laws?

Gambling TypeAge Limit
Casino Or Licensed Premises 18
Gaming Machines From Categories A, B1, B2, B3, B3A, B4 and C 18
Gaming machines From Category D No Age Limit
National Lottery 16
Scratchcards 16
Football Pools 16
Private Or Non-Commercial Betting No Age Limit
Equal Chance Gaming No Age Limit
Prize Gaming At Entertainment Centre Or Travelling Fair No Age Limit

If we’re going to have a look at the age restrictions that are in place over gambling then it makes sense to first explore things as they currently are. In the United Kingdom there are several different age limits depending on what exactly it is that people are gambling on, as the table above demonstrates.

You can see from the table that the current laws are slightly complex, with the age limit in place depending entirely on what it is that someone’s hoping to gamble upon. A sixteen-year-old could spend £100 on scratchcards, football pools or the National Lottery, for example, but wouldn’t be allowed to bet £1 inside a casino. Theoretically, a five-year-old could sit and spend thousands of pounds on coin pusher-type games or teddy grabbers without stepping outside of the legal boundaries for gambling. Quite where a five-year-old would get thousands of pounds from is another matter, of course, but the point still stands that they wouldn’t be breaking the law if they did.

The issue around the age of gamblers is further complicated by the rules that individual premises choose to put in place. It is not illegal for someone under the age of eighteen to enter a bingo hall, as an example, but if they were to do any gambling whilst they were in there then that would be against the law. For that reason, most licensed bingo clubs choose to instigate a blanket ban on anyone under the age of eighteen from entering the premises. Similarly, it’s legal for those under eighteen to play bingo at a private members clubs or institute, though they need to be a member of that club to do so and membership is often limited to eighteen-year-olds and over.  For more see our article on UK gambling licensing and law.

Why Are There Different Age Limits?

playing the national lottery

None of that is to say that the gambling age should be levelled out to just to stop confusion, of course. Yet there’s surely something of a contradiction when kids of any age an gamble on machines that have jackpots of less than £5 but can’t if the prize amount goes above that. Why is it that one form of gambling is seen as worse than any other? It surely can’t be because of the amount of money that can be won, given that a sixteen-year-old could play the EuroMillions and win over £100 million.  It’s also difficult to believe that the rate at which young punters could invest their money on something likes roulette or blackjack makes a difference, given that you can buy, play and then re-buy a scratchcard in the same amount of time as either of those games.

Research suggests that underage gamblers are between two and four times more likely to develop a gambling problem than an adult is. What we don’t know, however, is why it was felt that one form of gambling is naturally less addictive than another. Given the high potential yield for a relatively low output, you’d have thought that something like a National Lottery would be the most addictive thing of all. It’s certainly odd that something so clearly in favour of the ‘house’ is legal for those under the age of eighteen, but other forms of gambling are not. The ‘edge’ in the lottery is around 50%, whilst in blackjack it’s closer to 1% and in roulette it’s around 2.7%.

One argument is that of rapid re-staking, as mentioned a moment ago. If you sit and play roulette you’ll be able to gamble more money within a minute or so of your previous bet, whereas with the lottery you have to wait a minimum amount of time of a couple of hours between placing your bet and finding out the result. Where that argument falls down, however, is once again in the fact that scratchcard gambling is legal for sixteen-year-olds. In 1998, four years after the National Lottery was launched in the UK, Oflot, the then lottery watchdog, released a report that suggested that 5% of those under sixteen had a gambling problem and 2% had an obsession with scratchcards. The question obviously remains, why isn’t the age eighteen for the lottery as it is for other forms of gambling?

The obvious answer is a rather cynical one, but it states that the National Lottery was introduced by the government and they didn’t want to miss out on the increased revenue that would be lost if they’d made the legal age two years older than it currently is. There is also little appetite to change the legal age limit for the lottery, meaning that it’s unlikely to be pushed by one political party or another when they can’t see the benefit of doing so. A petition to raise the age limit to eighteen that was set up during the Conservative Government of 2015-2017 garnered just nine signatures, for example.

Would Raising The Age Make A Difference?

Age% That Used Slot Machines Pre Law Change% That Used Slot Machines After Law Change
12 18.1 7.3
14 40.5 11.7
16 58.4 16.6
16-18 43.7 12.7
18 & Over 50.5 40.2

(Source Information)

It’s intriguing that you are able to quite literally create a new life at the age of sixteen by procreating and at seventeen you can get into a motorised vehicle that would easily allow you to take a life, but you have to be another year older before you’d even be allowed to set foot in a casino. That obviously begs the question, ‘would changing the raising the legal age for gambling make any difference?’ For something approximating an answer we can turn to Finland, where a decision was taken to raise the legal age limit from fifteen to eighteen back in 2010. Research done on minors who used slot machines before and after the change in age limit was quite startling, as the table above suggests.

You can see that the difference in users of slot machines before and after the age was raised is fairly stark. Obviously, as with any survey, that is only the percentage of respondents that had used the machines, but you have to assume that it’s a fairly reflective example of the entire age group. That 40% of fourteen-year-olds were happy to gamble on slot machines a year before they were legally allowed to do so tells an interesting story, as does the fact that that figure dropped but close to one-third after the age limit changed. Of course, one of the reasons for the drop would undoubtedly be that less fourteen-year-olds will have looked close to the legal age once it was moved to eighteen, but it’s an intriguing shift nevertheless.

Responsible Gamling 18What’s also interesting to note is the ten percent drop between eighteen-year-olds and over using slot machines before the age limit changed and after. It’s suggestive of the idea that teens had grown accustomed to using slots in their earlier lives and had simply continued to do so as they’d grown older. It would have been interesting to see a more defined age range after eighteen, given the fact that there was a fifteen percent drop between sixteen-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds using slot machines prior to the change in the law. This is suggestive of the notion that they’d got excited when they were legally allowed to use the machines and then got bored after they’d done so. Might the same be true of nineteen or twenty-year-olds using the machines after the age range had switched to eighteen?

It’s also true that raising the legal age isn’t the only argument out there when it comes to talking about the legal age for gambling. As long ago as 2008 there were calls for the legal age for betting on horse racing to be lowered to sixteen.  The argument put forward was that younger people will always struggle to get into racing if they’re allowed to get married before they’re allowed to place an each-way bet on a horse race. Whilst virtually every sport has its own language and communication barriers, it’s a lot easier for young people to get into football, cricket or rugby when they’re allowed to participate in those sports at school and so on. Few are able to get into horse racing in the same manner and one of the chief appeals of the sport is the ability to have a bet on it.

As long as there’s no real appetite from the public for the age limit to change, it’s unlikely to do so. Whether there are louder calls for the age restriction to move in either direction in the coming years remains to be seen, but as long as politicians don’t think there’s anything in it for them then they’re not likely to lead the charge. One thing that might make people sit up and take notice is the 2017 decision by the Irish Government to move the age limit for all forms of gambling to eighteen-years-old. It was already set to eighteen for the lottery in Ireland, but those under that age could enter an amusement hall or arcade and use a slot machine. It may be a matter of the British government monitoring how things go in Ireland before making a decision about a similar law here.