In 2019 let's sort out gambling advertising

Many of us grew up in a different world, one where cash-rich tobacco firms called the shots. It was commonplace to go to the cinema and see cigarettes promoted through seductive advertisements. We were surrounded by smokers on billboards – and then there was sport.

Many sports featured cigarette advertising but most obviously Formula 1 and snooker. Two more different sports you can hardly conceive, one delivered via a barrage of noise, the other in an atmosphere most librarians would be satisfied with. Yet they had this in common: a very significant dependence on investment generated from tobacco advertising.

ReutersCampaigners have highlight the dangers of gambling around sporting events.

As the scientific evidence grew, linking tobacco usage to an increased risk of developing various cancers, so the sports most vulnerable to a subsequent loss in advertising revenue began to argue vigorously: 'Our sport will be devastated. Jobs will be lost. Tax revenues will be down. The public will be denied great entertainment.'

It is the classic defence of an industry that has lost the argument issuing dire warnings of the consequences and hoping the legislators take fright and (at the very least) delay their intended actions.

But in the end, public opinion shifted and the pressure bore fruit. Today we are a world away from where we used to be in relation to tobacco advertising. The story of that change is a powerful reminder that positive change in possible.

In 2019 we need a similar revolution to take place when it comes to the gambling industry and how its use of advertising, especially its relationship with football leagues, contributes to the growing epidemic of problem gambling here in the UK.

There can be no denying that 2018 saw genuine progress: the maximum stake on highly addictive fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) was slashed from £100 to just £2 and some of the UK's biggest bookies agreed to introduce restrictions on gambling ads around live sporting events. But it would be a massive mistake to put our feet up, take the plaudits and assume our work is done.

Just as the evidence that tobacco ruins lives helped persuade people of the need for changes to tobacco advertising, we are more aware than ever of the harmful effects of gambling. Where once this was an adults-only issue (controlled by physical access to betting shops) the online platforms have changed all that. The figures about child gambling are quite frightening. The latest Gambling Commission statistics show that 370,000 children (11-16 year olds) gamble on a weekly basis of whom 55,000 are categorised as problem gamblers. We must therefore be compelled to ask the question, what is fuelling this expansion?

The dominance of football as our national sport has been proven since 1992 with the advent of the Premier League and the TV deal that has made it the richest in the world. Advertisers are keen to get a slice of the action and none more so than the gambling industry, which has innovated its offering to include real-time odds and more specific types of bets to place.

It is a hugely profitable business with Denise Coates, the founder and CEO of Bet365, earning £265 million last year – a sum which, if £50 notes were laid on top of one another, would be twice the height of the Shard in London.

The effectiveness of the advertising and the ease of use for gambling sites means that it has become normative behaviour for so many. My son when in sixth form casually mentioned to me that most of his football-loving mates put a stake on a game every weekend. There may not have been big sums staked but a habit was formed nonetheless.

And if a habit takes hold then the results can be utterly devastating. In 2018 there was a 50 per cent rise in people being hospitalised due to gambling addiction. It is about time this was treated as a national crisis with agencies having an integrated plan for tackling gambling addiction and those who profit vigorously restricted in their promotional activities.

It is time for us to consider the ending of shirt sponsorship and the use of advertising hoardings around grounds by gambling organisations. Can you imagine Manchester United having a cigarette name and logo on their shirts? No, me neither. Yet the same principle applies.

From the banning of cigarette advertising on television to its ending on Formula 1 cars took 37 years. Let's hope we're not waiting as long for the end of betting sponsorship of football – too many lives depend on it.

Gareth Davies is UK director for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education)

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