Stop bombarding our kids with betting ads

If cigarette commercials are banned and alcohol ones restricted, why is the gambling industry able to target children?

It’s not just football that has got the betting buzz. Test matches are accompanied by former players sitting around discussing how “cricket is a good game to bet on” — even though the sport is embroiled in match-fixing scandals linked to gambling syndicates. From the Commonwealth Games to the Tour de France, gambling has become an integral part of sport, rather than something confined to horse-racing. Rory McIlroy’s father recently made £50,000 from a bet that his son would win the Open.

Smartphone technology has made it possible to have a financial as well as an emotional stake in the game instantly wherever you are. The betting industry is booming, with revenues of £6 billion after winnings were paid out in 2012-13. But surely it can’t be right for sports programmes watched by children to include commercials for bookies, casinos and betting apps that normalise and glamorise gambling?

Advertisements for cigarettes have long been banned on television, and strict broadcasting regulations exist for alcohol to ensu1re that beer, wine and spirits commercials cannot be aired during shows watched predominantly by the young. Yet there are no controls whatsoever on betting ads. In fact, there has been an explosion in gambling advertising in the past seven years since Labour liberalised the industry.

In 2007 when the Gambling Act allowed sports betting, online casinos and poker to be promoted on television, there were 234,000 gambling ads on TV. Last year there were 1.39 million — a 600 per cent increase. These ads now account for 4.1 per cent of all television advertising, up from 0.5 per cent before the change.

betting ads

The betting companies spend about £150 million a year on commercials broadcast straight into people’s homes. And of course many, if not most, of these adverts go out before the watershed. The broadcasting regulator Ofcom recently found that children aged four to fifteen are exposed to an average of 211 betting ads a year each. It may be no coincidence that, according to an Ipsos MORI poll, 15 per cent of young teenagers said that they had engaged in some kind of gambling in the previous week.

There are growing concerns that children are deliberately being “groomed” to become gamblers by sites that offer “free” stakes. One online poker operator, PKR, invites users to “join the next generation”, saying they can “play for free or real money”. Yet the young do not always have the wisdom or the self-control to know when to stop. Sixty per cent of the calls to the industry-backed helpline Gam Care are from 18 to 35-year-olds. According to one estimate, 2 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds and 1 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds now have a gambling problem.

There has been extraordinarily little research done on the impact of gambling ads. The betting companies are, not surprisingly, reluctant to release data on how effective they are. But it’s a racing certainty that the companies wouldn’t spend so much money on them unless they thought the commercials worked.

A recent research paper by Per Binde, of the University of Gothenburg, commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust, concluded: “There are reasons to believe that at least some gambling advertising has a negative influence because it contributes to the prevalence of problem gambling.” In one Swedish study 28 per cent of problem gamblers said they had gambled more because of advertising. Another poll of young people found that 40 per cent said they were more likely to buy a lottery ticket if they saw an advert, while 13 per cent of undergraduate poker players reported that they began gambling because of advertising.

Even Gerry Sutcliffe, the Labour sports minister who introduced the reform that allowed this betting free-for-all, has admitted his government got it wrong. “We did not envisage so much advertising for sports betting before the 9pm watershed,” he told the Commons last November, as he expressed his concern that some of the adverts “almost pressure people into betting”.

Politicians from all parties are starting to wake up to the issue. Last week Harriet Harman announced that Labour was considering introducing a multimillion-pound levy on all sports betting if it wins power. In the House of Lords Labour peers have been pressing the government to change the law to limit gambling adverts on TV. “A lot of the ads are completely misleading,” says Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, who has tabled amendments to legislation. “They say you can place a bet for nothing, but it’s not as simple as that.”

There have been similar moves in the House of Commons, where Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale, introduced a bill attempting to ban betting adverts before 9pm. This, he warns, is the first generation growing up with gambling seen as a socially acceptable form of entertainment enjoyed at home rather than behind darkened windows at the bookies. “Constant adverts for gambling condition young people into believing gambling is a fun, glamorous activity,” he says.

Of course, there are many responsible gamblers, who have the money and self-discipline to win against the odds. But we shouldn’t be encouraging children to think gambling is an integral part of sport. It’s the taking part, or the cheering on, that matters.

Before she resigned, Maria Miller, the previous culture secretary, announced a review but despite clamping down on fixed-odds betting terminals the government has still done nothing on gambling ads. David Cameron should step in. Gambling is not just a harmless leisure activity, it can be an addiction as dangerous as smoking, drinking or drugs. The poorest in society are the most vulnerable, especially in a recession with soaring levels of debt. This is a moral, as much as an economic issue. It’s time to cash out on the betting ad bonanza.