New gambling legislation is a good start on the road to remedial action

The Irish Times
 
New gambling legislation is a good start on the road to remedial action
BetOnline

This week, the Department of Justice followed the announcement of a regulatory office last March with publication of new legislation on gambling in a clear indication that Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne has listened to the right people and that his much-publicised stand of not meeting the industry has paid some dividends.

Lessons from the UK — which established a gambling commission in 2007 — show that having a large, well-resourced, independent regulator doesn’t amount to anything unless equipped with the necessary legislative firepower to prevent abuse.

If the excesses of the tech-enabled, 24/7 gambling industry are to be curbed to any meaningful degree there must be controls on advertising and sponsorship, strict controls on gambling by those under 25, mandatory deposit limits, a ban on VIP rooms and free bets and also separate accounts for sports betting and the more addictive online casinos.

It’s important to give credit. The moves on gambling advertising and sports sponsorship outlined in the new legislation are bold, far-reaching and, without question, will help to counter the pernicious way in which the industry preys upon the most vulnerable. That starts with children, so something as transformational as curbs on advertising and prison sentences for failing to protect children from gambling is critical.

Clear protection for those who the clinicians would describe as especially at risk — the under-25s — is missing from the new legislation. This group should be a particular focus for anyone who is sincere about exerting control over an industry that targets, or can target, the most vulnerable. The over-18s are hardly thought of as children but, clinically, we know their brains are underdeveloped; specifically, the frontal lobes are still forming. This leaves them especially prone to instinctive rather than considered decision-making. This needs more attention.

We must take the time to tighten and make absolutely bulletproof the legal conditions under which the industry will trade

Prof Colin O’Gara, head of addiction services at St John of God’s Hospital in Dublin, has questioned the capacity of the proposed gambling regulator to be able to police the industry and manage the myriad issues across health and social services caused by gambling. The tougher the legislation, the less pressure there will be on support services. We must take the time to tighten and make absolutely bulletproof the legal conditions under which the industry will trade so that over time fewer among us need medical interventions.

Establishing a levy so that the industry is obliged to fund the provision of social services for all those damaged by gambling is to be welcomed. But we should go right to the source and squeeze as much harm out of the industry as possible.

The problem with gambling isn’t those who are endangered by it. The problem is that the industry is allowed trade products it knows to be potentially harmful. This needs product-led reform. Mr Browne and this Government’s work to date is commendable but there’s one huge reform that appears to have been missed and which, were it included, would be truly transformational.

Both here, and in the UK, the governments should legislate to stop the industry from offering sports betting and online casino games on one account. The reason why this is so important bears repeating. One — sports betting — demands some level of critical faculties, some judgment and often, though not always, some time. The other — the casino — needs none of those things and all the evidence points to this being the gambling equivalent of the hardest of hard drugs.

Get hooked on playing the casino and the ease with which you can stop gambling has an altogether higher degree of difficulty.

One of the main reasons the casino is so addictive (and so profitable) is the speed of play and the really short time between spins

The industry is aware of this but remains happy to have the two — very different products — on offer on the same account. This means that if you’re betting on a football match; even if you’re waiting for the next turn of events to go again — in game — they tempt you with a free spin on the casino, while you’re waiting. The web is being spun and, flattered that you’re important and love the idea of a free anything, you fly right into the trap.

To be clear: one of the main reasons the casino is so addictive (and so profitable) is the speed of play and the really short time between spins, meaning the vulnerable have less time to think before self-destructing. It’s why it’s so dangerous. Separating accounts grants time for deliberation and the prospect that you sense the risk and avoid it. That online casinos carry a much greater threat of addiction is known, so why not legislate to make it more difficult for gamblers of all ages to use them by insisting that it must be on a different account?

Were it possible to toughen the new legislation further by decoupling sports betting and casino accounts we could look ahead to a point where the industry would do a great deal less damage to the more vulnerable in our society.