Gambling legislation hasn’t been properly updated since the 1950s.
The government intends to have a gambling regulator in operation by the Autumn, with the post to be advertised over the coming summer.
This post is being advertised but a significant lag is expected when it comes to the actual legislation the regulator will be enforcing, prompting an addiction counsellor to describe it as “a bit like the cart before the horse”.
The operation will initially run on €200,000 in seed money, set out in an amendment to gambling laws enacted in December.
It forms a part of the larger scheme to revamp gambling laws to adequately regulate an industry that has rapidly outgrown the current legislation.
Once the new bill has been passed, the regulator will be able to draw funding from licence fees paid by industry stakeholders, ensuring no extra cost to the taxpayer.
Bookmaker and casino operators will also have to pay into separate a social fund that will be fed into education and treatment for the problem gambling sphere.
Minister of State with Responsibility for Law Reform, James Browne, is undertaking the mammoth task of bringing the regulations up to speed in ever changing environment.
He describes the current legislation as “analogue laws” in a digital world.
Much of the gambling industry has moved online, especially since the onset of the pandemic, intermittently closing betting shops and casinos around the country.
Bank of Ireland reported a massive increase in the use of online gambling up to November of last year, noting a 65% increase in payments made to these online platforms.
For some people, this on-demand service is a factor in cultivating and maintaining an unhealthy relationship with gambling.
It’s hoped by those in the counselling profession that regulation will bring it in line with the strict limitations placed on the Lotto, rather than a 24 hour online service.
Currently, gambling is the only potentially addictive, over 18s product that is advertised before the watershed.
Gambling adverts feature most prominently during sporting matches, often compelling action that feeds into addictive impulses.
Barry Grant is an addiction counsellor with Extern Problem Gambling.
He feels that gambling should be treated like alcohol and cigarettes when it comes to advertising.
“We need to see an acknowledgement that, first of all, it is an over 18s product, all gambling products are over 18s products.
“An acknowledgement that a lot of people get addicted and experience different level of harm associated with gambling.
“It’s not treated like other addictive products are treated.”
Mr Grant drew the contrast between the placements of scratch cards in supermarkets, located at the till at eye-level, while alcohol, another over 18s product, is in a designated section of the shop as part of the Public Health Act.
Junior Minister Browne alluded to stricter controls being introduced for gambling adverts, though at this stage couldn’t say what shape or form they would take when finalised.
Loot boxes in video games have long been cited as cause for concern by problem gambling counsellors.
These in-game transactions see the user purchasing content with real money, though the content is essentially not determined until after you’ve paid.
For example, in Electronic Arts’ (EA) FIFA Ultimate Team mode, users have the chance to buy a random player to bolster their team.
Users purchase the chance to win a highly talented player for their team, whether it’s Bruno Fernandes or Mohammed Salah, though they may receive a dud player and as such are entering into a game of chance.
This is a highly concerning development for counsellors who believe that it is conditioning children at an early age to gamble with a risk reward system that has been compared to slot machines.
The concern is that this could condition behaviours that are an eventual gateway to problem gambling.
These microtransactions have amounted to a stream of revenue that dwarves the sales of the game itself.
A Dutch court recently found that these very loot boxes were in breach of the country’s gambling laws and slapped EA with a €10m fine.
Since then, EA has commenced removing loot boxes from their games’ editions in certain jurisdictions, most notably in Belgium where they have been banned.
However, Minister Browne highlighted that under current Irish law, this wasn’t considered to be gambling, though explained that it was being examined under the new legislation.
“Because you don’t get any real world reward, you don’t get money or a prize in the post, it’s not considered gambling.
“We all know how much our lifestyles are changing, more and more is online
“So I think those lines are very much blurring.
“Even if it’s not gambling, there are very real concerns around addiction in terms of people, we’ve all heard the stroies of young children who have emptied their bank accounts trying to buy these prizes in the hope of winning some in-game aspect that will help them do better in the game theat they’re playing.
“I think some of it does cross over into the realm of possibly being gambling but not under current Irish law … but if you pay money and it’s a game of chance, there’s a reward aspect to it.
“Certainly the psychological aspect to it are very very similar to gambling.
“If it looks like gambling and acts like gambling, well then we have to assess is it gambling.”
It’s estimated that there are around 40,000 problem gamblers in Ireland.
The Extern Problem Gambling Service, with just two counsellors, has managed to increase the HSE capacity for this treatment by 75%, with Mr Grant describing the demand for their service as “a queue going out the door”.
Currently the programme doesn’t receive any funding from the government and is operating off of a philanthropic donation of €150k made back in 2019.
In 2013, the social fund for such services was promised by the then Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, as part of the Gambling Control Bill, with the industry stakeholders expected to pay into that fund as mentioned above.
More than seven years later and still no funding has been allocated for these services.
Mr Grant describes it as a constant challenge to try and secure funding, especially in the absence of government leadership.
“Gambling is one of these things where organisations can end up going around to different departments, none of whom really are set up to have gambling treatments as part of their remit.
“Every time you go to a government department they say ‘well we’re very supportive of the social fund and as soon as that’s up and running organisations like yourself will be able to apply to it’.
“Unfortunately were seven and a half years down the line and we’re no closer to that fund materialising.”
The revamped gambling legislation is still a while away yet, and the question lingers, can the proposed gambling regulator operate without a legislative mandate in place?
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