Tipping Point: Gambling industry jitters point towards proposed Irish law having teeth

Arguing that online gambling is no more dangerous than retail just does not stack up

At last week’s Joint Committee on Justice meeting in the Oireachtas, there came one of those statements that makes everyone do a double take and wonder did we really hear what we thought we heard. Invited to make submissions for the pre-legislative scrutiny phase of the Gambling Regulation Bill, some of the great and good of the betting world dialled in and held forth on their views of where we are with problem gambling.

One contributor was Martin Le Jeune, communications man for British betting giant Entain, who own Ladbrokes. Among Entain's most recent greatest hits is their decision earlier this month not to repay £58 million of furlough money received from the British government during the 2020 lockdown despite making profits of £393 million last year. Their worldwide revenue grew last year by eight per cent to $3.83 billion and their profits in the UK alone jumped by 125 per cent. But no, they won't be handing back £58 million in taxpayer money that was used to pay staff during the pandemic.

Anyway, that wasn’t what Martin Le Jeune came to the Oireachtas Committee last week to talk about. Instead, he was there, along with reps from Flutter (aka Paddy Power) and other smaller players to assure deputies that at Entain, “we welcome your inquiry, we welcome what you are doing here and we are on the same page as you when it comes to safe gambling”.

All to the good then, yeah? Common ground is good ground. The people want regulation, the politicians want regulation, the bookies want regulation. So let’s all get our Warren G on. Let’s regulate.

But just in case anyone was in danger of getting too comfortable, Le Jeune set down his marker for the day. “At Entain,” he continued, “our view is that online gambling is inherently no more dangerous than retail gambling.”

You nearly had to hand it to him for sheer chutzpah. Plenty of PR dudes from the big gambling firms are content to just come in and take their beating at these events. They know most of it is blather with no real cause and effect, just as they know that the worst thing that will happen to them is a bit of grandstanding from a politician who has had an extra Weetabix that morning.

They don’t even physically have to go in and be in the room anymore since it’s all done at a digital distance. So in general, the approach is usually to go in and not scare the horses. A few empty bromides about how betting is just a bit of fun, some grimaced concession that mistakes were made in the past and hey-ho, everybody’s out the gap.

This was different. Le Jeune – and by extension Entain – clearly had a point to make. What the long-awaited Gambling Regulation Bill ends up looking like is anyone’s guess at this remove but evidently, there is a worry within the heavy hitters of the gambling world that it could end up having some teeth to it. While history would suggest they don’t have a lot to be nervous about, they evidently don’t want to concede too much ground.

But even allowing for the best of PR spin, even respecting the need for money-makers to stand up for the way they make money, the claim that online gambling is no more harmful than gambling in betting shops is an extraordinary one to make. Le Jeune is no daw – he knew what he was saying even sounded wrong on the ear. “I expect I will get questions on that later on,” was his next sentence.

When he did, his response leaned heavily on a survey done by the Gambling Commission in the UK towards the end of last year.

On the ground, the grim reality is that problem gambling is growing every year

“We in the UK have been measuring rates of problem gambling for many years and those years include a period in which online has gone from effectively zero of the market to being a substantial amount of the betting market. Yet despite this, problem gambling rates, as measured by The Gambling Commission – so an official UK body, not an industry body – have either remained static or in fact have dropped.

“More dramatically, you might say – and even I was surprised by this – during the period up to September 2021 covering the period of lockdown, problem gambling rates went from 0.6 per cent of those who gambled to 0.3 per cent. And that is a remarkable figure. I think the only deduction that one can make from that is that there is no inherent difference between online gambling and retail gambling as far as problem gambling is concerned.”

Well, we can certainly deduce something from the fact that Entain chose this survey among all the other gambling surveys to quote from. We can deduce something from the fact that Le Jeune didn’t quote the UK government’s Gambling Harms Review report from last September, which drilled down into six different studies into the effects of gambling and came to the conclusion that participation in online gambling for at-risk gamblers was double that of the general population.

Or that 20 per cent of online gamblers reported gambling more during lockdown than before – even though months went by without any sport to gamble on. Or that gambling-related harms have cost the UK economy alone an estimated £1.27 billion.

Beyond all that, the notion that you need a study to show that online gambling is more dangerous than retail is clearly ridiculous. You can’t sit up to two in the morning playing money-swallowing casino games in your local Ladbrokes. For retail gambling, you have to get up and go to the physical building to place a bet. You have to hand over actual money. All of this is easier, quicker and less immediately impactful when you do it on your phone. A child knows this.

In Cheltenham week, the gambling companies are always given a pass. They are the facilitators of fun, the place to go when loads of us become the kind of every-race punters that would be a cause for worry if it was the other 51 weeks of the year. But they know, on some level, that there is a danger they could become pariahs in the not-too distant future.

The Gambling Regulation Bill is a chance for Ireland to bring its woefully outdated laws into the 21st century. Entain and Flutter and all the rest of them know that the guardrails for their industry are being built here. They will chance their arm, knowing a result isn’t out of the question. They are experts in facing down the odds, after all.

But on the ground, the grim reality is that problem gambling is growing every year. According to counselling group Extern, the number of new visitors to the website ProblemGambling.ie has increased tenfold in the past six years. The political system has to be alive to all this.

It will have failed terribly if it allows arrant nonsense to be passed off as fundamental truth.