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Game-changers: how European regulators are tackling gambling harm

Main Inside Game_1984x808Game changer

Lauren Levin

By Patrick Gallus

Content warning for discussion of suicide below.

When she headed off to Europe on the professional trip of a lifetime, one of the most important items Lauren Levin had in her suitcase was a printed statement of one man’s gambling expenses.

For many years, Lauren has been a leading advocate for online gambling policy change, pushing for a national self-exclusion register and a better understanding of the link between gambling harm and suicide, as well as encouraging banks to give customers a way to easily block accounts used for gambling.

Lauren recently received a prestigious Churchill Fellowship to visit eight European countries that, during the pandemic, introduced policy changes to prevent gambling harm, and meet with gambling regulators and others involved in harm prevention.

Lauren has been a leading advocate for online gambling policy change.

In her role as Director, Policy and Campaigns at Financial Counselling Australia, she hears many stories of the terrible harm gambling can inflict, which is how she came across Christopher, whose gambling statement she took to Europe.

Christopher contacted Lauren to share his story, including an itemised history of his gambling, in the hope they would influence her advocacy work. Tragically, he took his life a few months later.

The statement shows Christopher made bulk deposits into an online betting account – money he received as compensation for an accident. On one day, he made a series of deposits into his account totalling $206,000. Less than a week later, he added $120,000.

When Lauren shared Christopher’s story and the statement with her European colleagues, they were astounded.

‘Each said, “No, this can’t happen in our jurisdiction … we’ve got deposit limits; we’ve got obligations to intervene; we’ve got a duty of care,”’ according to Lauren, who uncovered a range of innovative approaches to reducing gambling harm that provide lessons for Australia.

Here are four of her key findings.

1 - Prioritise safety

‘The line “most people gamble responsibly, but some people get into trouble” is about individual responsibility – and it’s an industry line,’ said Lauren. ‘It suggests that gambling is just an ordinary product. It isn’t, particularly in the eye of French regulators.’

The French recently introduced new gambling legislation that recognises gambling is a harmful product, not a regular consumer product, because it carries significant risks of abuse and public health risks like addiction and social isolation.

The approach means that harm is considered in the application of strict regulatory supervision for gambling.

‘I think we need to totally reframe gambling as not an ordinary service, but as a harmful product,’ said Lauren. ‘Gambling harms people, just like tobacco harms people.’

2 - Create a ‘data vault’

Every bet placed in Spain, France and the Netherlands is recorded in the gambling regulator’s data vault. This allows regulators to see and aggregate data on every bet, including the value, the bettor’s age, and what they bet on. Some of this de-identified data is publicly available.

The data is used to tailor policy. For example, Spain’s gambling policy is currently geared towards preventing harm among people aged under 26 because recent data showed that despite a decrease in online gambling spend overall, it had increased among young men.

The data allows regulators to measure the effect of policy changes.

The data also allows regulators to measure the effect of policy changes, identify groups at-risk of gambling harm, and detect deposits that should be investigated for anti-money laundering compliance.

Further, Lauren said a data vault enhances the powers of regulators, because ‘knowing that the regulator can see everything keeps the gambling operators honest’.

3 - Control advertising and marketing

In March this year, Belgium announced a total ban on gambling advertising and marketing. The first bans will come into effect on 1 July 2023 for television, radio, cinemas, magazines, newspapers, online and in public spaces. Stadium advertising and sporting club sponsorship bans will follow.

Sweden allows gambling companies to advertise only at ‘moderate levels’. Spain limits the broadcast of gambling ads to 1–5 am, when young people are less likely to be exposed, and has stopped in-stadium and sporting uniform sponsorship.

… it is illegal to promote gambling on media that cannot exclude vulnerable groups ...

Netherlands is an outlier. Gambling advertising was only recently introduced following the legalisation of online gambling in October 2021. In response to public concern about the significant level of advertising, the government enacted additional legislation prohibiting ‘un-targeted gambling advertising’. This means that it is illegal to promote gambling on media that cannot exclude vulnerable groups from exposure to the ads.

4 - Set mandatory deposit limits

‘Most people are not impacted by mandatory deposit limits as the majority gamble low amounts and would never reach the limit,’ said Lauren. ‘Deposit limits do however impact those gambling large amounts, many of whom would be categorised as being harmed by gambling.’

Sweden, Spain and Ireland require people to set deposit limits.

In 2020, Belgium introduced a mandatory cap on gambling spend of €500 a week. Two years later this was reduced to €200 a week because harm was still considered too high.

Sweden, Spain and Ireland require people to set deposit limits with each gambling operator they use. While customers can open a new account with a different operator if they reach their cap, for some people this acts as a check on spending.

Germany recently announced a blanket mandatory deposit limit of €1000 a month across all forms of gambling.

‘Deposit limits need to be mandatory because evidence shows that voluntary limits do not work,’ said Lauren. Data covering a range of European countries found an average of 16 per cent of customers set a voluntary deposit limit.

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