Irish gamblers lost about €1.36 billion last year – averaging about €300 for every adult, making the Irish the fourth-biggest gamblers in the European Union, according to industry figures.
Globally, Ireland ranks 14th for average highest losses on gambling, just ahead of the United Kingdom, and behind Finland (€342 per adult), Malta (€334) and Sweden (€325), according to industry analysts H2 Gambling Capital.
The latest statistics from H2 show a major shift towards online gambling in Ireland, and away from betting shops and track betting. Nearly half of all betting was online last year, up from just over a third (36 per cent) the previous year.
Much of the shift has been driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the analysts. The average European shift from betting shops to online is less pronounced, rising from 26 per cent of all gambling to 39 per cent last year.
In 2019, Revenue took in €51.9 million in traditional betting duty receipts and €40.6 million in remote betting receipts – almost double the figures (€28.9 million and €21.7 million, respectively) from the previous year.
According to the European Gaming and Betting Association, sports betting is the most popular type of online gambling, accounting for 41 per cent of the market and raking in €10 billion in 2019.
More than 44 per cent of all online bets are made from a smartphone, or tablet, rather than from desktop computers. The mobile devices are expected to account for almost six in ten of all online bets by 2025.
The H2 statistics show Ireland accounts for 2.6 per cent of Europe’s online gambling market revenue, despite making up just 1.1 per cent of the overall population.
Last month President Michael D Higgins led calls for greater regulation of online gambling.
In a follow-up to his speech at the Tiglin addiction centre in Co Wicklow, the President issued a statement on Saturday in which he said: "I welcome the fact that the debate on sports gambling advertising has now been taken up in the public discourse.
“Having met with people that have overcome addictions of various kinds, I spoke of the scourge of sports gambling and the dangerous gambling advertisements which continue to cause so much damage to families and individuals,” he said.
He added that “nobody can accept that the tokenistic ‘small print’ warnings and invitations to be ‘responsible’ are in any way in proportion to the possible damage being inflicted by the lure of sports gambling ads”.
The “saturation” of online betting ads in the media raises questions about what has been allowed to happen “when the evidence of the damage being inflicted is so obvious and should be a concern to us all”, said the President.
Echoing the argument, Prof Crystal Fulton, of University College Dublin, whose study Playing Social Roulette lays bare the devastation wreaked by out-of-control gambling, calls Ireland "the wild west" in terms of regulation.
“It is a very free industry here. We don’t have anywhere near the restrictions operating in other countries,” she says, adding that the UK has had a gambling commission for more than a decade.
It has “constantly” reviewed legislation and regulations, and has “long since” had rules in place to govern advertising. “That’s just not the case in Ireland,” says Fulton.
“Some industry players here put out small messages about responsible gambling – but they control the message,” she says, adding that the Government was told five years ago of the devastation wrought by online gambling.
In her research, commissioned by the Government five years ago, recovering problem gamblers told of handing over the keys to their homes, marital breakdowns and families ruined over accrued debts amid an often highly secretive habit.
Relentless advertising, enticements such as free bets and bonus schemes as well as fastly moving technology manipulating gamblers on smartphone apps have created a “tsunami” of enablers. Legislation hasn’t even begun to play catch-up, she says.
In March, a study funded by the Gambling Awareness Trust estimated there were up to 55,000 men and women with a serious gambling disorder in Ireland.
But one of the report authors, Prof John O'Brennan of Maynooth University, believes the problem is likely to be much worse.
"There isn't enough official data in Ireland. The last figures by the Health Research Board are now six years old," he says.
“It just hasn’t kept up with extraordinary advances in online gambling, and the problem may be significantly worse than that headline rate actually suggests.”
Blaming “saturation levels” of advertising, marketing and promotion, advanced technology and light-touch regulation, he says Ireland is “lagging behind” other countries.
"There has been a raft of legislation all across Europe putting limits on the gambling industry, with a whole range of instruments available, but to date there has been complete inertia in Ireland about regulation in general," he says.
A Government working group made recommendations on regulating the gambling industry in 2019.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice James Browne says it is working on “coherent” legislation to replace the “current outdated and complex arrangements”, to include a gambling regulator, which would also oversee advertising.
However, approval for draft legislation isn’t expected until autumn and a regulator won’t be “fully operational” until “early 2023”, he says.
In the meantime, it falls to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland and the Broadcasting Authoring of Ireland to regulate gambling adverts.
The BAI says it is “cognisant of the potential harms for audiences caused by gambling” but that there are no current limits on gambling advertising around sporting events.
The authority says it will update its rules based on any legislative changes.
But it points out that overseas broadcasters transmitting into the State are “licensed elsewhere”.