The pointless ban on gambling ads

Confession: Like many people, yours truly has something of an addictive personality. Give me a packet of biscuits, I dare you, and ask me to eat only two of them. The packet will be gone. Being a compulsive eater is the reason I’ve had a life-long struggle with weight, sometimes winning, often losing.

Well, that, and being a lazy sod. It’s a bad combination.

So my sympathy for those who suffer from gambling addiction is boundless.

Clearly, that addiction can ruin your life, and does, regularly, ruin lives. To the government’s credit, the legislation they are enacting is intended to prevent more lives from being ruined:

Gambling advertising will be prohibited between 5.30am and 9pm as part of the Gambling Regulation Bill, which has been approved by the Government.

A new Gambling Regulator Authority will enforce new advertising and sponsorship rules across all media, and will overhaul the licensing laws for the gambling industry.

The Government plans to have the new authority established and operational next year.

Minister of State James Browne said advertising aimed at children and problem gamblers will be banned.

This is a proposal that will, doubtless, have widespread support. Gambling companies are not popular, advertising is not popular (it’s tolerated, but who can say they love adverts?), and of course it is all in a very good cause. The Government will not lose a single net vote by banning it. Still, that does not make it right.

In the first instance, the proposal does not solve the problem it is intended to solve: Gambling will still be legal. As well as that, gambling adverts will still be legal on foreign channels, because the Irish Government does not govern, say, Britain.

Second, why does the legislation not apply to the most common and pernicious form of gambling, the national lottery? Under the heads of bill drafted by the Government, the National Lottery may be granted an exemption from the ban, and presumably that clause is in place because they will be granted such an exception.

Somebody who buys two lines on every lotto and euromillions draw over a full year – and there are many such people – is spending €1,872 every year on gambling, at much worse odds of winning than somebody spending that same amount every week on backing a horse. But betting on the horses and the dogs is stigmatized, while wasting two grand on the lotto every year is considered a bit of fun. As bad as any company that promotes gambling might be, few of them run weekly adverts suggesting that this time next week you might own a Caribbean Island. So, this isn’t really about gambling, so much as it’s about demonizing the bookies.

Third, there’s the unanswered question about the impact of such a ban on sporting events, and so on. If you want to know why gambling sponsorship and advertising is so prevalent in sports, look no further than the ban on advertising alcohol and cigarettes at sporting events. And last I checked, by the way, alcoholism and tobacco addiction was still a problem, even after those restrictions were enacted.

Here’s an idea: Wouldn’t a much more effective restriction on gambling be simply to restrict the amount any one person can gamble with any one company in a set period? Set a maximum upper limit on what a person can bet with a single betting company in a week, to, say, €100, and you might do more to stop gamblers bankrupting themselves than any advertising law would or could. Obviously, hardcore addicts could still seek to do business with multiple bookmakers in one town, but guess what: They’ll do that regardless of whether you ban advertising. A limit on stakes might prevent people getting addicted, or into financial difficulties, in the first place.

Of course, give the gambling companies a choice between limiting what people spend with them, and limiting what they spend on advertising, and they’ll pick the second option every time. It’s the option that saves them money!

Meanwhile, the law about advertising conveniently expires at 9pm, so they can advertise away. When are addicts most likely to be feeling a bit desperate and in need of a wager? 9.30pm, or half past five in the evening?

If you are a cynic, like me, you might well think the gambling companies are delighted with this arrangement, which reduces their advertising costs while doing nothing to meaningfully limit their income. While, at the same time, giving the politicians their favourite thing: Something to point at and say “look, we did something”.

Same as it ever was.

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