Monday 18 February 2019

John McGee: 'Gambling marketers are next in the line of fire'

'We have a somewhat ambivalent - and possibly conflicted - attitude towards gambling in Ireland.' (stock picture)
'We have a somewhat ambivalent - and possibly conflicted - attitude towards gambling in Ireland.' (stock picture)

John McGee

Many moons ago, I had the dubious pleasure of hobnobbing it in the so-called Fianna Fail tent at the Galway Races. As a guest of a former TD and acquaintance of mine, I mingled with a number of well-known builders and developers, famed and moneyed merchant princes, the odd celebrity and political wannabes as well as the usual coterie of politicians and seasoned lobbyists.

In the corner of the plush marquee - it clearly wasn't a tent - a half-sozzled builder was overheard bragging about winning insanely large sums of money in one race and losing equally insane amounts of money in another. As the champagne flowed freely, it was one of those moments when I didn't really want to know how the other half lives. Nor did I care.

Feeling way out my depth, losing the will to live and tiring of the crass displays of braggadocio and reckless one-upmanship that was a feature of much of the Noughties, I didn't hang around for too long. Several years later that same builder ended up going to the wall owing millions to a number of Irish and UK banks, a raft of trade creditors and, I've been reliably told, substantial amounts to a few well-known bookies around the country. Yes, I'm sorry, but I did feel a blissful sense of schadenfreude.

Clearly, he had issues when it came to gambling. Developer guy, however, is far from being alone as it is estimated that there are more than 100,000 people who could be classified as problem gamblers in Ireland. The reality is that nobody really knows for sure and it's entirely conceivable that the figure is much higher.

What we do know, however, is that Irish people gambled in excess of €5bn in 2017. This figure doesn't include the €12.3m that was waged through betting exchanges. Nor does it include the €800m which punters gambled on buying National Lottery tickets, scratch-cards and playing games on its online platform.

When it comes to gambling losses, it would appear that we are also a nation of losers. According to the UK-based gambling and data research firm, H2 Gambling Capital, Ireland ranked second in the world on a per capita basis with a staggering €2.1bn in losses in 2016.

So, it will come as no surprise to learn that gambling will be the next big front on which legislators will wage a war when it comes to curtailing the slick marketing, advertising and sponsorship activities of gambling firms over the next few years.

We have a somewhat ambivalent - and possibly conflicted - attitude towards gambling in Ireland. It is estimated, for example, that as much as 45pc of the adult population has gambled at some stage in their lives, whether they are the fair-weather novices that come out of the woodwork when Cheltenham or the Grand National comes around or veterans of in-game betting on Premiership football matches.

If you want an example of how gambling is tightly woven into the fabric of Irish society one only has to look at horse-racing, the so-called sport of kings. Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) is the commercial semi-state company responsible for the governance, development and promotion of horse-racing, the promotion of the Irish thoroughbred horse internationally and, wait for it, the running of Tote Ireland, which offers racing fans an opportunity to gamble at race meetings.

In 2017, on-course betting amounted to €171.2m of which €97.8m came via the Tote while another €63.5m came from on-course bookies. The Tote, of course, reinvests the money it makes back into the industry, one which is vitally important to many communities around Ireland. According to a 2017 report published by Deloitte, on behalf of HRI, the horse-racing and breeding industry here is worth around €1.8bn a year and employs over 15,000 people directly and 14,000 s indirectly.

The gambling industry also makes a decent contribution to the Exchequer. Following the recent doubling in the betting tax - which kicked in at the beginning of January, the State can expect to pull in around €52m a year. At a time when public finances are going to be stretched for the foreseeable future, what's not to like?

So, how will this war on the marketing, advertising and sponsorship activities of gambling firms pan out? A lot will depend on when the Gambling Control Bill (2018) gets enacted. To give some idea of how long it has taken to get to this stage it was, once upon a time, called the Gambling Control Bill (2013). While the key feature of the bill is the establishment of an all-powerful regulator - the Office of Gambling Control Ireland (OGCI) - it also embraces most of the ASAI voluntary codes that pertain to the marketing and advertising of gambling. But it will also confer powers on the regulator to change these regulations, if it sees fit, with the imprimatur of a ministerial order. And it seems most likely that there will be numerous changes as the regulator sharpens its regulatory teeth.

Although it's still early days, you can safely bet that it will be a emotive and hard-fought struggle with much soul-searching and recrimination amongst the key stakeholders.

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