No causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling

An article for PoliticsHome entitled ‘Calls for a gambling advertising ban are not backed up by the evidence’ by Michael Dugher, CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council (published today, 11 June 2021) criticises calls for a ban on gambling advertising during the imminent UEFA European Football Championship, commencing this evening. The article reads as follows:

Calls for a gambling advertising ban are not backed up by the evidence

A year ago, anti-gambling campaigners were making dire warnings that the Covid lockdown would lead to a surge in gambling as a premise for their long-standing calls for a ban on all betting adverts.

This week, however, the Government minister Baroness Barran said in a written parliamentary answer that “overall participation in gambling has declined over the period of Covid-19 lockdowns in Great Britain”. A year later, the same siren voices have been repeating their calls for an advertising ban in the run-up to football’s European Championships.

But again, the evidence does not back up their arguments. In another written parliamentary answer, DCMS minister John Whittingdale – the man leading the Government’s Gambling Review – pointed to an academic study into the link between advertising and betting. He said “it did not establish a causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling”.

The close relationship between betting and football dates back more than 100 years through the football pools. Today, at a time of an unprecedented cash crisis for most football clubs following the Covid-19 pandemic, the betting industry provides millions of pounds of vital funds to the national game, including £40m to the English Football League and its clubs. This financial support has been especially important during the pandemic, with the absence of crowds leaving a black hole in clubs’ balance sheets.

As EFL chairman Rick Parry wrote recently: “It is no secret that lots of clubs have been under immense financial strain, so it’s no overstatement to say that the ongoing support of sponsors and partners has been integral to many clubs’ survival this year more than ever, particularly in the absence of bespoke financial support from the government that was afforded to near enough every sport apart from professional football.”

Amid concerns that our members’ financial support for football could lead to a rise in problem gambling, the EFL asked Professor Ian McHale of the University of Liverpool to carry out his own research. His study concluded there was no evidence that sponsorship of clubs or leagues influenced participation in betting.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that 30 million people in the UK – half the population – enjoy a flutter, the overwhelming majority of them do so responsibly and perfectly safely. Nevertheless, one problem gambler is one too many, which is why, since being set up 18 months ago, the BGC has been determined to drive change, raise standards and promote safer gambling.

For instance, under a code of conduct we introduced earlier this year, calls to action or links to gambling websites are no longer allowed on organic posts on the social media channels of football clubs. This followed concerns that the posts could be used to get round strict measures which are already in place to prevent under-18s from seeing betting adverts online.

Our members also brought in the whistle-to-whistle ban on TV betting commercials from five minutes before a match starts until five minutes after it ends, before the 9pm watershed. This has led to a fall of 97 per cent in the number of such ads seen by children at that time. According to ITV, the ban also means that the amount of betting commercials during Euro 2020 “will be significantly reduced compared to the 2018 World Cup.”

All betting advertising and sponsorship must comply with strict guidelines – such as a ban on betting logos on kids’ football kits – while 20 per cent of TV and radio ads are safer gambling messaging. This may be why, according to a report earlier this year by the Gambling Commission, rates of problem and at-risk gambling fell in 2020. Overall, according to the Government, the rate of problem gambling is 0.5 per cent and has been stable for the past 20 years.

It has also been suggested by the anti-gambling lobby that the regulated industry tries to exploit football’s popularity to encourage under-18s to gamble. But again, the facts simply do not back this up. According to the Gambling Commission, the main types of gambling by 11 to 16-year-olds are private bets, scratchcards, fruit machines and playing cards with friends – not betting on football with BGC members. The regulator also found that the number of young people who admitted to gambling in the previous week fell from 23 per cent in 2011 to 11 per cent in 2019.

But we are far from complacent and are determined to keep up the momentum and embrace further change in the years ahead. This is evidenced by the way BGC members encourage their customers to set deposit limits, take time outs and, where necessary, sign up to the range of self-exclusion schemes that are out there. One operator, Sky Bet, has over half a million customers who set a deposit limit on their account – enough to fill ten capacity crowds at St James’ Parks.

Euro 2020 is taking place in the middle of the Government’s Gambling Review, something we have strongly supported. We are pleased that ministers have pledged to take an evidence-based approach, and to ensure that the right balance is struck between protecting the vulnerable and not spoiling the enjoyment of the vast majority who enjoy a flutter as part of their leisure time. I fully support the need for changes to the way our industry is regulated, but it’s important that we get them right. We need to protect the tens of thousands of good quality jobs in the regulated industry and stop gamblers drifting off to the unsafe, unregulated black market online.

Once again, Rick Parry hit the nail on the head when he said: “We know from history that prohibition does not work. When it comes to gambling, we instead should be looking at continually improving regulation, developing advertising standards and reviewing partnership models as opposed to imposing blanket bans on associations between football and the gambling sector.”

Of course, there will also be anti-gambling campaigners – Sunday school prohibitionists and the like – who will use any excuse to repeat their calls for banning advertising.  But serious policy-makers have to deal in evidence, not emotion. The painful reality for those who don’t like betting is that their arguments simply do not stack up.

The written parliamentary answer to which reference is made in the above article was delivered by John Whittingdale MP on 7 June 2021 in response to the two following questions raised by Ronnie Cowan MP:

  1. To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, pursuant to the Answer of 24 May 2021 to Question 2347 on Gambling: Advertising, whether the Government has an evidential basis for the absence of a causal link between (a) exposure to gambling advertising and (b) the development of problem gambling.
  2. To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what assessment he has made of the effect of increases in (a) gambling advertising on levels of gambling and (b) gambling on levels of gambling-related harm.

John Whittingdale’s complete answer was as follows:

The government launched the Review of the Gambling Act 2005 on 8 December with the publication of a Call for Evidence. As part of that we called for evidence on the benefits or harms of allowing gambling operators to advertise and will consider carefully any evidence of links between advertising and gambling related harm. The call for evidence closed on 31 March and received approximately 16,000 submissions from a broad range of interested organisations and individuals. We are currently considering the evidence submitted and aim to publish conclusions by the end of the year.

Professor Per Binde’s 2014 literature review, conducted for the Responsible Gambling Trust (now GambleAware), explored five possible mechanisms by which gambling advertising could impact problem gambling behaviour:

  1. Stimulating a current gambler’s gambling behaviour to an extent that it becomes problematic;
  2. Inducing a non-gambler to start gambling in a way that quickly becomes problematic;
  3. Inducing a non-gambler to start gambling in a way that eventually becomes problematic;
  4. Maintaining or exacerbating existing problem gambling behaviour; or
  5. Creating a positive societal attitude (particularly amongst young people) towards gambling.

Of these potential impacts, Binde’s review found empirical evidence only for the fourth. While this research found evidence that advertising may adversely impact problem gamblers’ efforts to cut down, it did not establish a causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling.

That answer corresponded with the following statement by the UK Government in its December 2020 response to the House of Lords Select Committee Gambling Industry Report:

Studies looking at the impact of advertising on adult gambling behaviours have indicated that exposure to advertising may be linked to a greater propensity to gamble. However, the existing evidence base does not demonstrate a causal link between exposure to gambling advertising that complies with the current rules and problem gambling. The government will keep this under review and has announced that it will consider evidence relating to gambling marketing and advertising as part of the Review of the Gambling Act 2005.

Professor Binde’s 2014 literature review – mentioned above by John Whittingdale – also featured in the Gaming Regulators European Forum (“GREF”) 2019 annual lecture delivered by David Clifton during ICE week on 5 February 2019, as reported in our subsequent website posting entitled “Gambling advertising – turn down the volume or turn it off?”.