Gambling regulator needs to be ‘fast-tracked’, says psychiatrist

Children targeted by gambling ads during live TV sports

A leading psychiatrist treating addiction has called on the Government to fast-track plans for the long-promised gambling regulator after a study showed children are being heavily exposed to betting advertising.

Prof Colin O’Gara, head of addiction services at Saint John of God Hospital in Dublin, said it was “entirely unacceptable” for children to be exposed to gambling advertising on television and that the State has “absolutely failed our young people” in distinguishing between sport and gambling.

A new study by UCD and Nottingham Trent University of advertising during live televised GAA, soccer and rugby games found that gambling adverts were shown in 75 per cent of games.

The research showed that 230 advertisements during 65 sporting events were broadcast before the adult television watershed exposing them to children during popular sporting events.

"Gambling is being normalised extensively not only on TV but also online as gambling companies are shifting focus. Children are led to believe that gambling is harmless, which it is not," said Prof O'Gara, a brother of former Munster and Ireland rugby player Ronan.

Soccer games

The study found most adverts were run during soccer games, followed by rugby and GAA.

Prof O’Gara said that in-play advertising, which incentivises players to place bets as a match they watch is being played, are “very common” in soccer, leading to high volume of “in-play betting”. These can be “more influential” and are more likely to appeal to “problem gamblers”.

Plans for a gambling regulator were first announced last year by the then government and the commitment to create the regulator is included in the current programme for government.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has said that the creation of a regulatory body for the country’s €8 billion gambling industry will not take place until at least next year.

Prof O’Gara said the Government needs to fulfil its commitment to set up the regulator and enact “robust legislation” to protect players “across a whole host of gambling products”.

There was “significant anxiety” that the regulator may not be set up given the delays, he said.

He questioned whether the Government could restrict gambling advertising ahead of the regulator being established given that it was “a significant public health measure”.

Establishing a regulator was more urgent now, he said, given the surge in popularity of internet gaming and features such as loot boxes – in-game purchases where players do not know what is in a box until they have bought it – that have been banned in other countries.

High-profile sports stars

Prof O’Gara expressed concerns about high-profile sports stars who can influence young people fronting advertising campaigns for the large gambling companies.

“Young men cannot decipher the difference between gambling and sport – they are inherently linked in their view – and that is something we need to challenge,” he told The Irish Times.

He said that a regulator could introduce limits on the amounts gamblers spend or the amounts they lose during a particular session or set limits on the amount of time they spend gambling.

The psychiatrist made his call at the 30th annual Saint John of God Research Study Day, a conference that has examined mental health and intellectual disability issues for three decades.

Prof O’Gara said that unlike substance addictions, gambling can be hidden and present for treatment at a late stage, while the trauma for family members affected can be a “massive shock” with the cost running to hundreds of thousands or even millions of euro, if there is theft or fraud.

“The trauma is the equivalent of a road traffic accident for the family. One minute everything is okay, the next minute everything is not,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent