The Gambling Act 2005 – Rolling the Dice on our Children’s Future
Rob Higgins evaluates the Gambling Act 2005, with a close focus on gambling advertising and the protection of children.
The Government’s review of the Gambling Act 2005 is overdue and very welcome. It is inadequate for a multitude of reasons, not least for failing to address the effect that the move to online gambling has on the market. The legislation lags significantly behind the fast-moving reality of the industry. Furthermore, there are many discussions to be had about the morality of gambling and the destruction that it can have upon individuals through its addictive nature. However, in this essay, I will focus on the failure of the current legislation to fulfil one of its own purported objectives. I will do so with a focus on the protection of children, gambling advertising and gambling companies’ sports sponsorship.
Section 1 (c) of the Gambling Act 2005 states one of the three licensing objectives to be:
“protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling.”
I submit that this is incompatible with section 46 (5)(b) of the same act, in which advertising to a child or young person is not an offence if it is brought to the attention of them:
“as an incident of the information being brought to the attention of adults and without a view to encouraging the child or young person to gamble.”
This is a catch-all paragraph which enables companies to justify their advertising to children and young people whilst claiming that adults are the main target audience. This is a vague provision that fails to address how widespread advertisements are.
For example, under the current legislation, an advertisement may be seen by ten people in total. Out of those ten, eight could be adults and two children. A gambling advertiser can justify this advert by stating that the two children who have seen it are purely incidental. An issue arises when the numbers are ten million, rather than just ten. In this case, the ‘incidental’ advertising to children will have reached two million of them. Whilst this is low in proportion to the number of adults who have seen the advert, it is impossible that such a situation enables the successful protection of children and young people as is the objective under s. 1(c).
This problem of scale is most clear within sports. In the English Premier League (EPL) for the 2020/21 season, eight of the twenty teams have gambling companies as their main sponsor, and almost every other club has a gambling sponsor in some other capacity. This by far outstrips any other industry that is present and active. The EPL is the most watched sporting league in the UK by some distance, and the value of such sponsorships are several million pounds each season.
Whilst apparent safeguards are in place - including prohibitions on betting brands being advertised on a child’s shirt - this does nothing to address the multitude of other touchpoints at which a child or young person will encounter the brand. This can be on traditional forms of advertisements such as programmes, posters and on television, but even more so today on websites, club social media channels and other digital touchpoints.
I argue that when it comes to sports sponsorship, due to the demographic of the fanbase and the number of fans that each club has both in the UK and abroad, there is no genuine ‘incidental’ advertising. Each person who sees and interacts with the club (and therefore brand) must be regarded as a legitimate target of the advert.
I therefore suggest, whilst a radical move, that section 46 (5)(b) of the Gambling Act should be removed altogether from the new legislation. This will almost certainly create an indirect ban on the sponsorship of sport by gambling companies. Whilst this will have a financially devastating impact on numerous sports clubs and rights holders (albeit short-term), it can be brought in incrementally with some protection for commercial relationships that are already in place. With Formula 1, we have a blueprint of how a sport can adapt and change its financial model when a large contributor disappears. Tobacco advertising was banned over fifteen years ago, and F1 is currently thriving. Alternative investors have entered the market, and even private equity has seen the sport as a profitable target.
I have shown here how the current legislation is contradictory in its own provisions and suggested a solution to the issue. I am cognizant that there are many other suggestions, but I believe the only way to truly protect children and young people from the perils of gambling early in their lives is by amending the law as it stands. I do not advocate a ban on gambling altogether: as with alcohol and tobacco, I believe adults should be able to choose to consume or partake in such activities as they wish. However, gambling addiction is already a huge issue - in 2016 it was estimated that it cost the UK Government between £260 million and £1.2 billion each year - and therefore substantial action needs to be taken.
Written by Rob Higgins.