For a variety of reasons, the number of people who gamble and the total betting turnover cannot be estimated accurately. For a start, many gamblers will not admit to taking part, because they think it vaguely sinful.
Secondly, some forms of gambling are illegal in various parts of the world and are carried on under cover.
Lastly, tax laws make for spurious gambling figures. Wins can be exaggerated, losses played down.
In rich Western societies, it is estimated that 90 percent of adults have bet at one time or another and about 10 percent of these bet regularly.
The scale ranges from those who bet only on the big horse-races of the year, through those who attend bingo sessions once a week, to those people, who might be classed as sick, who wear a gauntlet on one hand so that they can spend all day pulling the handles of two, three or four one-armed bandits, which they play simultaneously.
Annual gambling turnover in Western countries is frequently assessed by various methods. The assessments vary considerably, but usually have one thing in common: they are greater than the sums spent on education, hospitals, house-building, drink or tobacco.
A figure for betting turnover, once assessed, is misleading, because the same money is bet over and over again.
So the total turnover is much greater (about eight times greater) than the amount actually spent, or lost to the bookmaker or gambling proprietor. With these reservations, it is estimated that the amount of money being gambled in Britain annually in the 1970s is over 2,250 million pounds.
Of this, 900 million pounds is bet on horses, 600 million in casinos, 300 million on bingo, 250 million on greyhounds, 175 million o football and 30 million on gambling machines.
In the United States, betting turnover is perhaps one hundred times higher than in Great Britain, several times higher than the turnover of the largest corporations, like General Motors. Nevada is the great gambling state, where most forms of gambling are legal.
In Australia, bookmakers are licensed and betting on horses is the most popular gamble. Bookmakers are becoming fewer as states prefer the totalizator system, particularly for off-course betting.
Lotteries are also licensed in New Zealand, where proceeds go to welfare. Betting on horses is legal in New Zealand through the totalizator agency but some forms of gambling are illegal.
South Africa allows betting on racetracks, but other gambling is illegal. Japan allows government licensed lotteries, and betting on racing, whether the ‘runners’ are horses, boats or bicycles. Proceeds go to the government, who encourage particularly the horseracing industry.
Great Britain has very enlightened gambling laws. Most forms of gambling are allowed but regulated by strict licensing. Bookmakers, casinos, pools and raffles are permitted, if licensed, and the government runs a premium bond savings scheme, where interest on deposits is distributed to bond holders on a lottery basis.
However, France allows a few lotteries run for the state or charity and a large pari-mutuel (tote) organization for betting on horses. Private gambling is illegal.
Scandinavian countries run state lotteries and football pools and allow on-track betting on horses. Like France, private gambling is illegal as well.
West Germany and Italy have state lotteries, license casinos and allow betting on horses.
Betting shops are numerous in West Germany, and much of the proceeds of the lotteries and the tax on bookmakers is donated to sporting organizations, and no doubt accounts for this country’s success in international sport.