I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Chadlington for introducing this important debate. I was going to add “on a subject close to his heart” but, lest that be misinterpreted—as far as I know, he has never even bought a scratch card—I use this opportunity to pay tribute to his long and active association with the charity Action on Addiction, of which he was chairman between 1999 and 2008.
I have read quite widely in preparation for today’s debate and received input from a number of bodies from the industry, academia, the charitable sector and, of course, the extensive briefing notes from your Lordships’ Library, all of which serve to underline not only that this is a complex and perhaps underresearched field but that undertaking any research on the impact of gambling is methodologically challenging. Indeed, the Gambling Commission’s own research in 2016 found little evidence that advertising had a direct influence on gambling by children. Intuitively, however, one suspects that it is a lot more powerful than the research suggests, particularly since the very same report admitted that around 450,000 young people—almost 20% of the total cohort of 11 to 15 year-olds—gamble at least once a week and that the number is rising.
This is a field that is mutating before our eyes, so I wonder whether research methodology has kept pace. Tablet and mobile phones are now the most popular devices for going online, and we have witnessed an explosion of smartphone ownership in recent years—according to Ofcom, 79% of 12 to 15 year-olds now own one, up from only 69% two years ago. These devices have no watershed, and the ability to access gambling sites often requires only a tick in the box to confirm age as being over 18.
As a report by Demos observed last year, the whole online gambling ecosystem has changed. New influential voices with huge online followings are seen to promote gambling, and over 500 tipsters and affiliates identified by Demos share tips but fall outside any regulatory framework. Apps operating with digital currency and which look and behave like traditional gambling products also fall outside the gambling licensing laws because they do not yield cash prizes.
Research undertaken by Deakin University in Australia—which spends more per capita on gambling than any other country—shows quite clearly how young people become keen to gamble because of attractive advertising and its link to their favourite sport. Pervasive betting marketing when linked to sport is driving an unhealthy normalisation of gambling in children’s minds. It is not just the commercials that appear in the programme breaks, but everything from the hoardings around pitches to the sponsorship of team shirts.
Professor Cassidy’s research in the UK reinforces this view. There were more instances of gambling advertising during live sporting events broadcast in the UK than were recorded by similar studies in Australia, which has a watershed of 8.30 pm. The majority of these were for online gambling viewed on billboards. During three episodes of the BBC’s “Match of the Day”—screened after the watershed, but of course repeated on Sunday mornings and at will on iPlayer—764 instances of gambling advertising were identified. In similar Sky broadcasts the number was only 524. She concludes that the,
“exclusion of produced commercials from public service broadcasts does not prevent audiences from being exposed to large volumes of advertising”.
She adds that this has become,
“part of the fabric of sporting arena”.
I, too, do not believe that the strategically placed “Gamble Responsibly” adverts can have much discernible effect in challenging perceptions that gambling is as cool as the sport it supports.
Evidence suggests that the younger the age at which problem gambling develops, the greater will be the consequences and the severity of gambling in later life. Therefore, I welcome the two new research studies commissioned by the independent charity GambleAware. The first seeks to understand better the effect of gambling, marketing and advertising in all its forms on children and young people. The second will examine the effectiveness of gambling-blocking software.
The Australian Deakin report suggests that the burden of proof should be on the gambling industry to show that its marketing does not influence risky patterns of behaviour. This approach is now echoed by the UK regulator, which states in its principles that where there is a gambling product with a risk of harm, it will apply the precautionary principle and have the product removed. We must all hope that, in the concluding words on the Deakin report,
“the idea of using sport and advertising to promote this betting behaviour to vulnerable young people will go the same way as the tobacco industry and the dodo”.