Like many aspects of social life in Ireland, gambling is widely seen as a bit of fun, marketed by those within what is a multi-million euro industry as part and parcel of society today. In many ways, this suits the Government, as the gambling industry raises at least €100m a year in taxes for the State. The value of the Irish gambling market annually has been estimated as being between €6bn and €8bn. While there is nothing inherently wrong with gambling or the wagering of money on something of value, in itself that is not the end of the matter: like several other aspects of social life here, related to the misuse of alcohol for example, there are huge issues associated with the gambling industry which policy-makers are really only beginning to understand.
It is now evident that problem gambling is increasingly an issue which can give rise to huge social problems doing great harm to some people's lives, the most difficult feature being its impact on families. Recent data suggests that there are 40,000 problem gamblers in this country, or 0.8pc of the population. However, that number is regarded to be a gross underestimation. In contrast, recent research from Northern Ireland has found that 2.3pc of the population there are problem gamblers. In Ireland, there have been at least around 800 cases where people have sought help with gambling addiction since 2015, but again HSE officials have labelled this "the tip of the iceberg". The realisation that problem gambling is a serious issue in this country has dawned far too slowly on policy-makers. It is evident that Government has been too hesitant to regulate what is now a highly resourced, increasingly sophisticated industry which spares no effort in lobbying on its own behalf, regardless of the impact on its customers.
The Minister of State with special responsibility for gambling regulation, David Stanton, recently announced that the Government has approved the establishment of a gambling regulatory authority. Establishing the gambling regulatory authority, as an independent statutory body under the auspices of the Department of Justice, is the key recommendation of the report of the Inter-Departmental Working Group on this issue. Last month the Government also hosted a seminar on the future licensing and regulation of gambling in Ireland, as the country progresses towards comprehensive reform of antiquated gambling legislation. The current legislative framework on gambling is archaic and largely irrelevant. It is underpinned by the Betting Act 1931 and the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956, which were both introduced during a period when there was barely any electricity let alone technology.
While these Government measures are welcome, the pace of reform is still desperately slow. Gambling control legislation has been on the books since 2013. It is intended that the new gambling regulatory authority will develop and enforce necessary and appropriate licensing and regulatory measures in respect of all gambling activities, including online. The authority will also regulate the industry in respect of protection of vulnerable persons, including age restrictions, staff training, self-exclusion measures and controls on advertising, promotions and sponsorship. While it is appropriate that the gambling industry be part of ongoing efforts to reform and update controlling legislation and regulation, it is more important that Government determinedly presses ahead with much-needed regulation in this area, regardless of any pressure or influence from within that industry.