Opinion: protecting Ireland's many gambling addicts would be best done with the establishment of a gambling regulator

The unprecedented result of February's general election followed by the coronavirus outbreak has led to a lengthy period of government formation. Another consequence of the election, however, which has drawn far less mainstream notice is the lapse of the Gambling Control Bill 2018. The failure of the bill is the latest disappointment in a decades-long tale of inaction in the sphere of gambling regulation.

The lack of comprehensive reform is exacerbated by the growing prevalence of problem gambling in Ireland. Figures published by the National Advisory Council on Drugs and Alcohol indicate that 0.8% of the Irish population meet the criteria for the disorder. This equates to nearly 40,000 people afflicted with a condition that can lead to crippling debt, family breakdown, anxiety, depression and suicide.

Introduced in February 2018, the Gambling Control Bill sought to modernise regulation of the Irish gambling sector, which is primarily governed by the Betting Act 1931 and the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956. The new bill contained several groundbreaking provisions. These included the introduction of a self-exclusion register - whereby problem gamblers could voluntarily have themselves excluded from gambling - and the establishment of a dedicated gambling regulator.

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But the dissolution of the 32nd Dáil means the bill has now lapsed and the gambling industry continues to be ruled by outdated legislation. Most worryingly, without specific anti-problem gambling legislation, Ireland’s problem gamblers still find themselves at the mercy of, what Fianna Fail TD Jack Chambers has called, a "wild-west sector".

Legislating for problem gambling

Problem gambling has entered forcefully into public discourse in recent times, largely thanks to the candour of several prominent sports figures, such as Oisín McConville, who have been forthcoming with their own struggles. The intense personal suffering the disorder causes also dominated Dáil debates around the 2018 bill.

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Recognising the severe individual and societal costs it poses, governments have sought to directly address gambling addiction. Whereas the industry has traditionally been self-regulated, legislators have increasingly begun to mandate safeguards for gambling addicts. For example, the UK's Gambling Act 2005 directs its regulator, the Gambling Commission, to issue industry codes of practice aimed at protecting vulnerable consumers. Among various provisions, the most recent code mandates self-exclusion, the provision of information on responsible gambling and problem gambling, and measures to identify separate accounts belonging to the same individual.

The 2018 Irish bill sought to join this trend of bespoke anti-problem gambling provisions. In addition to self-exclusion, it would have required gambling providers to monitor potential problem gamblers and promote customer awareness of responsible gambling. The bill also aimed to ban providing credit to be repaid from customers' winnings. Strict limitations were to be placed on gambling advertising.

Instead, however, gambling in Ireland remains governed by legislation that is over half a century old. The existing legislation contains none of the anti-problem gambling mechanisms that have been introduced elsewhere. In fact, the central pieces of legislation predate the American Psychiatric Association's initial recognition of gambling addiction as a disorder in 1961.

What would a regulator do?

Ireland currently lacks a dedicated regulatory body for gambling. Responsibility for regulating the industry is shared between various government bodies, including the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána and the Revenue Commissioners. Over the past two decades, calls for the establishment of a gambling regulator have reached a crescendo. Politicians, news media, gambling addiction charities and successive government reports have highlighted the need for such a body.

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Demands for a regulator have emphasised the greater efficiency and benefits it would bring to licencing, monitoring and enforcement. Others have pointed to the ability of a dedicated body to better address the complexities of the gambling industry. This point is crucial. As an early adopter of technology, the gambling sector develops rapidly. The emergence of the internet, for example, has revolutionised gambling by making it more accessible and diverse, as well as less easily regulated. The recent international furore over so-called "loot boxes" in online video games has brought these challenges sharply into focus.

Continuous technological progress in the industry leaves problem gamblers especially vulnerable. Online gambling allows addicts to gamble in an ever-growing number of ways, on seemingly limitless events and at any time of the day. The online dimension also makes gambling more covert, allowing addiction to fester unbeknownst to the sufferer's family and friends. Research also reveals a link between internet addiction and problem gambling and has demonstrated the profound effect of online advertising on problem gamblers.

Attempting to keep pace with industry innovation through constant legislation is impractical. Decades of legislative inertia demonstrate this. Indeed, it took until 2015 to amend the Betting Act to extend its provisions to online betting. Instead, a dynamic regulator can play a crucial role in protecting gamblers from the constant technological developments of the industry.

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In the UK, the Gambling Act does not contain the swathe of anti-problem gambling provisions included in our 2018 bill. Rather, these form part of the codes of practice and licence conditions issued by the Gambling Commission. This model allows for a flexible approach to regulation, where rules can be updated frequently without enduring the lengthy legislative process. The Gambling Commission recently used its powers to ban the use of credit cards in online gambling. This was in response to evidence of high rates of problem gambling among credit card users.

The 2018 bill proposed to empower the regulator to issue codes of practice and licence conditions, though these powers were expressly limited. In any case, introducing an equivalent ban on credit card gambling, for example, would be far more cumbersome under our current legislation. Having a regulator with the power to issue responsive rules for the industry is therefore vital to protecting vulnerable gamblers.

Notwithstanding minor, interim amendments in 2015 and 2019, it has been several decades since significant gambling legislation has been passed. This inaction has left Ireland lagging behind other jurisdictions, without a regulatory body for the sector or regulations directly addressing gambling addiction. The country’s growing number of problem gamblers, and their families, will surely be hoping reform is a priority for our next government.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ