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LONDON (Reuters) - On the websites of Britain's bookmakers gamblers can bet around the clock on anything from soccer in Azerbaijan to financial market fluctuations, while others in betting shops feed high-stake machines that can devour 300 pounds ($470) a minute.
This anywhere, anytime gambling culture has changed the face of the industry over the past 15 years and brought fresh temptations to those who struggle to prevent a harmless flutter from becoming a dangerous addiction.
Whether the 6.3 billion pound industry creates more addicts is disputed, but a media backlash and political posturing ahead of a British national election next year has increased pressure on companies to show they are serious about tackling the problem as the Responsible Gambling Trust prepares to publish new research on the issue next month.
"The challenge for companies is how they are going to persuade the regulator and a more skeptical public that they really care and it's not just cosmetic, or just enough to keep either the regulator or politicians off their back," Philip Graf, chairman of industry regulator the British Gambling Commission, has said.
Gambling has long been legal and tolerated in Britain, but at a price. High-stake betting machines and online revenue are the latest parts of the business to endure tax increases, while planning restrictions are being placed on betting shops that have proliferated in poor inner-city areas.
To avoid further sanctions, companies such as William Hill, Ladbrokes, Gala Coral and Paddy Power are looking to self-police their activities.
In September leading firms set up a watchdog to hold them to account on pledges to advertise more responsibly, committing to fewer shop-window promotions and to screening sign-up TV advertisements at times when fewer children are watching.
They are looking for a balance to ensure that punters avoid addiction but keep coming back - not least to Britain's 33,000 high-stake gambling machines, which generate annual income of 1.5 billion pounds and have given betting shops a fresh purpose at a time when gambling via mobile devices is rocketing.
"Obviously, it is a challenge for companies who are tying to make money; they wouldn't want to do things that would be overly restrictive of their consumers," Dirk Hansen, CEO at gambling addiction support group GamCare, told Reuters.
However, actively helping rather than merely encouraging punters to bet within their means could ensure that customers can afford to bet for many years more, companies say.
In Britain less than 1 percent of adults are problem gamblers, according to industry data.
At Harvard Medical School in the United States five scientists have spent almost a decade working for online gambling company Bwin.Party to create an algorithm capable of identifying gambling addiction behavior, with a view to addressing customer issues before they become too entrenched.
Using information from win-loss responses to average stakes, total spending and gambling frequency, Bwin has conducted trials of the algorithm on one of its websites since September.
"The research has identified the behaviors associated with gambling problems and then identified what the predictors are," Howard Shaffer, addiction division director and Psychiatry Professor at Harvard Medical School, told Reuters.
Sharp, uncharacteristic behavioral changes that mirror those of addicts or potential problem gamblers trigger interventions ranging from generic warning messages to contact from teams trained to discuss behavior and possible remedies. These include restrictions on play or, in more acute cases, account closures and charity referrals.
Although too early to evaluate, the trial involving 3,000 users has prompted several hundred interventions, Bwin said. Full rollout is due next year if the trial proves successful.
William Hill and Ladbrokes, Britain's two biggest bookmakers, are also working on similar algorithm strategies, while the latter plans to link executive pay to targets on responsible gambling.
GamCare's Hansen welcomed the industry's latest attempts but warned that it might not address the most serious cases.
"People at the hard end of addiction are probably going to opt out of these measures," he said.
Editing by David Goodman