Senior gambling industry figures have admitted concerns that children are being exposed to too many betting adverts on TV and have called on the government to act.
The growing consensus among of industry bosses prompted calls from Labour for the government to crack down on “out of control” gambling ads.
Philip Bowcock, the chief executive of William Hill, said: “Some sort of change is needed, but that has to be led by government. It’s incumbent on them to step up to the plate and have a serious discussion about it.”
He has previously said he is “sympathetic to some sort of curb or … review around the level of advertising”.
Paddy Power Betfair said this week that it was “supportive of further regulation … to reduce the volume of pre-watershed TV advertising to protect young children”.
Gambling adverts are permitted before 9pm in the UK, as long as they are attached to live sporting events such as Premier League and World Cup football.
By contrast, Australia has banned betting commercials accompanying live sports coverage and Italy has banned them altogether.
Peter Jackson, the chief executive of Paddy Power Betfair, said he was open to tougher limits on the volume of ads but that it was “difficult for the industry to do this on its own”.
Jackson added: “Even if progressive operators agree to restrict ads, unless there’s legislation passed, less responsible operators step in and continue advertising.”
In its recent triennial review of gambling regulation, which focused largely on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said it would not act to restrict TV advertising because of a lack of evidence it was causing harm.
But critics of this stance have pointed to the absence of large studies into the influence of gambling ads, particularly on children. The charity GambleAware has commissioned research into the subject, but it will not be ready until 2019.
Simon Thomas, the chief executive of London’s Hippodrome Casino, said the government should err on the side of caution.
“There are valid concerns with regard to the exposure of children to a high number of gambling adverts, particularly where they are linked to glamorous activities or high-profile role models such as Premiership footballers or professional cricketers,” he said.
“Where children are concerned, we need to set a lower threshold of risk and be more prepared to employ the precautionary principle.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said: “The gambling industry has rarely been united over issues of social responsibility – so when operators are openly admitting that the level of gambling advertising has become a problem, we have to take it seriously.
“Gambling advertising on sports fixtures in particular is out of control. International research suggests that children and young adults in particular are increasingly targeted and exposed to gambling messages.”
Watson said the government had “avoided taking the action needed and continued to rely on out of date evidence”.
In practice, companies such as William Hill and Paddy Power have the least to lose from a crackdown on ads because they are much better known than smaller firms seeking to build a brand.
Some smaller gambling firms, and broadcasters such as Sky and ITV that derive revenue from gambling ads, played down the effect on children in their submissions to the DCMS review.
But Dr Heather Wardle, a gambling behaviour expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it was easy to underestimate the impact.
“We know from studies of 11- to 15-year-olds that 2% of children said they started to gamble or increased gambling due to advertising. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it equates to 60,000 children.”
She said the true effect on children may not become clear for years: “It’s hard to prove what harm is being done because it’s a generational thing and the harm comes much further down the line. We’re creating the conditions that normalise gambling for a generation.”
Research by the Guardian during the World Cup found that ITV’s coverage of the tournament featured 90 minutes of gambling ads.
Other research has found that gambling ads during the World Cup may have breached advertising regulations introduced this year prohibiting commercials that “unduly pressure the audience to gamble”.
Researchers from the psychology department of the University of Warwick said 63 “live odds” adverts, which display time-limited offers, “may have encouraged viewers to gamble impulsively”.
The Advertising Standards Authority is understood to be considering whether some live odds promotions breach its code of practice.
Source: The Guardian