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Why gambling adverts should not be banned
by Jon Bryan

Newcastle United
Ronnie Cowan, the Scottish National Party MP, wants to watch the upcoming European Football Championships without seeing any adverts for gambling. That's fair enough. The problem is, he doesn't want anyone else to see them either.

"The European Championships" says the Inverclyde MP and Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm, "should be about the beautiful game." On this point, I agree. But Cowan goes on to complain that "it will be impossible to watch without exposure to gambling ads." (Sunday Post, 7th June 2021) According to Cowan, gambling advertising "can have a devastating effect on young people and the vulnerable. We owe it to bereaved families who have lost loved ones to gambling-related suicide to provide better safeguards. We need to move to a place where gambling is tolerated, not promoted" he argues.

For me, it is his last sentence that is the most chilling. Cowan talks about 'tolerance', but this is not a tolerance which is about acceptance and understanding. He wants gambling to be hidden away. To not be seen, and not be heard. Wanting to ban all advertising of an activity and its associated products, is neither accepting nor tolerant. He knows that gambling goes on, he just doesn't want to hear about it and see it: and he thinks that the same should apply to all of us.

For those who have followed the debate around gambling over the last few years, this is familiar territory. The proposition is that 'gambling adverts normalise gambling', therefore, they say, 'we must ban them.'

The problem with this argument is that gambling is, and has been for a long time, a normal and legal activity. Earlier this year, data from the Gambling Commission found 40% of adults had gambled within a four week period (Gambling Commission, 27th April 2021).

It's not that gambling is being normalised: it's already a normal activity. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with that. The vast majority who bet do so without a problem, and according to the same Gambling Commission data, the rate for problem gambling is "0.4%, compared to 0.6% the previous year" (Gambling Commission, 27th April 2021).

Euro 2020 Odds
It's not that gambling adverts normalise betting; it's the other way round. That so many people take a punt in one way or another, means that the promotion of different gambling companies is normal. The adverts themselves might annoy you - either because of the number of them or their content - but that's just life.

So what about this issue, often a central argument for those calling to ban gambling adverts, that they should not be seen by 'young people and the vulnerable'? I have some sympathy with those with a gambling disorder who say they could be 'triggered' by watching a gambling advert, causing them to relapse. I also think it is reasonable to say that children should not be exposed to gambling adverts. With regards to this latter point, there has been some welcome developments from both the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) as well as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The BGC introduced a number of measures, including a 'whistle to whistle' ban which "led to a 97% reduction in the number of TV betting adverts seen by children" (Betting and Gaming Council). While the ASA reported a very slight drop in the exposure to gambling adverts over the last few years (ASA News, 22nd May 2020) and continues to scrutinise gambling adverts and any impact on children (CAP News, 29th April 2021).

So what about those who are vulnerable? Those who are perhaps recovering from a gambling disorder? They may relapse if they see gambling adverts whilst watching football on TV. What can we do about them? There is every reason to be concerned, but that is not a reason to make the promotion of an activity like gambling a criminal offence, and to ensure that no-one ever sees an advert for gambling. There are already steps that you can take to block gambling adverts out of your life and there is some good advice and applications available for you to use. These include some advice from BeGambleAware (Limiting gambling ads online, BeGambleAware) and the Gambling Commission (Controlling the level of gambling-related content you see on Twitter, Gambling Commission). And more is being planned by Google and YouTube The Guardian, 10th December 2020). While this is not fool proof, it does show that there are tools out there which can help. That is surely the way forward, rather than the blanket ban approach which some are calling for as we approach the start of the European football championships (BBC Sport, May 11th 2021).

Ronnie Cowan, and others like him (note the other signatories to this open letter), don't just want to ban gambling adverts for young people and the vulnerable, they want to ban them for all of us. They don't trust us to be able to make our own decisions and to make the right judgements about how we spend our money. They don't have faith that we could get through a football match without putting a bet on as soon as we see a gambling advert.

The assumption that adults can't cope with seeing something on a football shirt, a pitch side hoarding, or the TV, without being propelled into spending money on the next goal is a dangerous assumption. It treats us all like children, instead of rational-thinking adults. Assumptions like that are bad news for those of us who have a belief that we should be able to choose for ourselves how we spend both our time and our money.

After over a year of restrictions, and football largely sterile without any fans, I am looking forward to watching the best European footballing nations take on each other in the delayed Euro 2020 championship. I will try not to be swayed by any adverts for gambling, or car insurance comparison sites for that matter. Like Ronnie Cowan, I will concentrate on the football, especially when England take on Scotland on Friday 18 June 2021.

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Jon Bryan is treasurer of The Great Debate and regularly writes about gambling. He is a poker player and tweets at @JonBryanPoker.

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© Jon Bryan, 2021