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Regulated gambling: Why higher standards rather than bans are the best way to protect the most vulnerable

Michael Dugher, CEO | Betting And Gaming Council

5 min read Partner content

More can and will be done to promote safer gambling in sports sponsorship and online advertising, but an ad ban wouldn’t make betting safer - it would just damage our best loved sports.

Given how long it took, I’m sure many hoped that the publication of the Government’s White Paper on gambling would be the finish line in a very long race. Although the White Paper rightly contains the biggest reforms in a generation, much of what ministers put forward is still work in progress. And that is particularly true on the issue of advertising and sports sponsorship. 

After considering all of the evidence, the Government rejected proposals from anti-gambling prohibitionists for a ban on advertising, sports sponsorship and consumer promotions. As I told the DCMS Select Committee, if you think betting is like smoking - something that is intrinsically harmful to all - then I understand why you would seek a ban.

But most people believe that gambling is more like alcohol - something millions of people enjoy, where the overwhelming majority of them do so perfectly safely and responsibly, but where a minority can have a problem (and in extreme cases serious ones). Treating betting like booze leads you to a place where you want to see strong regulation and strict rules in place to protect the vulnerable - not bans.

The Government concluded there was simply no credible evidence that advertising and sports sponsorship leads to problem gambling. Meanwhile, sporting bodies have made it clear that draconian measures like bans would undoubtedly damage many of our much-loved sports.

When I met with the Rugby Football League (RFL) some time ago, where Betfred sponsor the men’s, women’s and wheelchair Rugby League, I said some MPs claim the RFL don’t need the money. They replied: “Well those MPs are not looking at the same spreadsheets as me”. Similarly ITV told me that if advertising and sponsorship was removed from horse racing, then that would be the end of racing on terrestrial television.

But that does not mean more can’t be done to raise standards. I recently wrote to the DCMS outlining some of the new measures our members would like to see introduced to increase safeguards for online advertising. But to strengthen this area further, we need the full cooperation of the platforms and social media giants themselves. So far, that cooperation has not been as forthcoming as we would have hoped for.

The good news is DCMS Minister Stuart Andrew was quick to respond, and he is going to convene a meeting to help drive change.

For example, BGC members want to see a marketing suppression tool introduced by all social media companies to prevent all betting and gaming ads being seen by those who have voluntarily excluded on GAMSTOP, the national self-exclusion scheme. We estimate this could prevent around 300,000 people from receiving these ads.

Advertisement frequency is another issue. Working with our members, it would be possible to cap the frequency adults see betting and gaming ads.

Since the BGC was established, we have introduced a ban on football club social media sites being used to directly advertise odds or betting, as well as a requirement for paid ads to be targeted at adults aged over 25 unless social media platforms can prove sites are being viewed by those over the legal age to bet. We have also worked with social media companies to ensure customers can now opt-out of betting and gaming adverts from their betting provider.

Our members also commit 20 per cent of TV and radio advertising to safer gambling messaging, promoting increasingly popular tools like deposit limits and time-outs, as well as signposting the help that’s available for anyone worried about gambling. The whistle-to-whistle ban – which prevents TV adverts being broadcast during live sport, excluding horse and greyhound racing, before the watershed – has led to the number of such ads being seen by children at that time falling by 97 per cent. And we are now extending that 20 per cent safer gambling messaging requirement to cover both broadcast and online advertising.

One of the things the Government called for in the White Paper was a new Sports Sponsorship Code. Amongst other things, I hope this will see 20 per cent of all perimeter gambling advertising at football having to be similarly dedicated to safer gambling messaging. I hope the sporting bodies will work with us so that a new Code, containing a wide range of measures, is published soon. We need to get on with it. 

Every month 22.5 million adults have a bet (roughly half of all adults). Meanwhile, problem gambling rates remain around 0.3 per cent of UK adults, according to the independent regulator. For those who enjoy a bet, just like with other consumer products, advertisements are a crucial part in ensuring proper competition and a vibrant customer experience. All advertising is rightly heavily regulated, with strict standards applied by an independent body. For instance, new rules include a ban on the use of footballers and celebrities in advertising who have strong appeal to those under the age of 18.

Meanwhile regulated betting and gaming is making a massive contribution to sports with sponsorship, advertising and media rights. BGC members provide horse racing with hundreds of millions a year, the English Football League and their clubs receive £40 million, and it’s a similar story for sports like snooker, darts and rugby league. 

Our industry contributes £7.1 billion to the economy, generates £4.2 billion in taxes and supports 110,000 jobs. I know that anti-gambling prohibitionists just want to ban stuff, yet they are a beast that doesn’t get full. Nothing will ever be enough and the Government is right to root public policy in evidence, not emotion. But the regulated industry is committed to delivering further change - including on advertising and sports sponsorship - to better protect the vulnerable. The White Paper is not the end of the race for higher standards. 

Michael Dugher is the CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council, and is a former Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS. 

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