Howlin told to protect players amid Lotto sale

Gambling expert calls for new measures to prevent addiction as Government seeks €600m for licence

Jerome Reilly

As the Government prepares for the controversial €600m sale of the National Lottery, a world expert on internet gambling has warned Minister Brendan Howlin he must introduce measures to protect players from addiction as part of a social responsibility charter imposed on the new private operator.

The sale of the lottery licence for a 20-year period does not appear to be a compelling deal – unless the new operator can substantially increase turnover and revenues.

Last year, Lotto game sales reached €252.3m – a drop of 10.6 per cent from the previous year.

With some 53 per cent of that money going in prizes and another 30 per cent to beneficiaries, the return on a €600m investment by a new private operator, even over two decades, appears modest.

And one of the first private operators to express an interest in acquiring the licence, the Italian-owned gaming giant Gtech, has admitted that one of the key selling points of the Irish licence is the relatively untapped online market, which accounts for only two per cent of sales in Ireland.

Gtech's chief operations officer Declan Harkin said that if they are successful in their bid, there will be a "very significant refresh of the technology used to support the business".

He also strongly hinted there was likely to be a roll-out of new self-service points of sale in shops.

At the moment, the An Post National Lottery is curtailed in the online services it can offer. There is a lengthy registration process that players must complete before they can play Lotto online. This will be relaxed under the new Lottery Act.

Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University believes that problem gambling in relation to lottery-style games is not inevitable if there is proper social responsibility and player protection, which is becoming a regulatory requirement in a number of countries.

This could mean a range of controls including some basic measures like age of consent, limits on the amount of money that can be spent by an individual player as well as time limits on playing.

He points to research worldwide that demonstrates that children and adolescents are one of the most high-risk vulnerable groups when it comes to gambling online.

Most experts on addiction recommend that gaming companies use rigorous age verification measures similar to those used in the banking sector to prevent minors from accessing its online games.

Since the establishment of the National Lottery in March 1987, more than €4.2bn has been raised for good causes including sport and recreation, health and welfare, national heritage and the arts, and the Irish language.

The upfront payment being demanded of the new licence-holder will be used to offset the cost of the new national children's hospital.

Last week, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform issued an invitation for expressions of interest, with the licence competition expected to begin on May 27.

Applicants will then have some three months to prepare a fully funded binding bid by mid-September, with the licence being awarded in November.