On 1 March 2022, the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Foster of Bath (Liberal Democrat) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the link between gambling advertising and gambling-related harm.

What is gambling-related harm?

Public Health England (PHE) has stated that concerns about the harms associated with gambling have increased in recent years. In response, it carried out an “evidence review”, publishing its conclusions in September 2021. The review classified gambling harms into six categories:

  • Financial, such as debt and bankruptcy. As well as being harms in themselves, the report said they could lead to other types of harm on the list.
  • Relationship, including lower levels of family functioning and social support and an increased risk of domestic abuse.
  • Mental and physical health, such as an increased risk of dying from any cause and a significantly increased risk of suicide. They were also more likely to suffer from self-harming, depression, sleep and alcohol and drug-related problems.
  • Employment and education, for example a loss of concentration at work that can mean a higher risk of losing a job or being demoted. Child gamblers, and children of gamblers, also experienced difficulties at school.
  • Criminal and antisocial behaviour, such as theft, fraud and selling drugs.
  • Cultural, for example shame and isolation resulting from societal attitudes to gambling.

The report calculated the economic cost of gambling harms as £1.27bn per year. It said around half of this was a direct cost to of government. The largest category of cost was mental and physical health, including £619m of costs resulting from suicides. However, the study noted that it was not possible to value all harms to individuals and society and therefore its cost estimates were likely to be too low.

The report also estimated that 0.5% of the population, or around 246,000 people in England, are “problem gamblers”, for whom gambling has negative consequences including a loss of control. This was based on data from 2018. In addition, it said 3.8% of the population are “at-risk gamblers” who may experience some negative consequences from gambling, while 7% are negatively affected by other peoples’ gambling. It found that those at the greatest risk of harm were more likely to be: unemployed; from a deprived area; or have poor health.

The Gambling Commission’s latest quarterly survey of participation and problem gambling suggested that 0.3% of the population were problem gamblers in the year to September 2021. This was a fall from 0.6% in 2020 and 0.5% in 2017.

Does gambling advertising impact gambling harm?

In July 2020, a report by the House of Lords Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry Committee reported that the gambling industry spends more than £1.5bn per year on advertising. It said this figure increased by 56% between 2014 and 2017.

Whether gambling advertising increases gambling-related harm has been the subject of debate. For example, the committee said it had “received no evidence nor been pointed to any research which proves that there is any causal link between gambling advertising and problem gambling”. However, the committee described its own conclusion as “concerning” and “counter-intuitive”. It said that the issue might be a lack of available data and called for more research in the area.

The Government has also questioned whether advertising leads to gambling harm. For example, in June 2021, in response to a written question, then Minister of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, quoted the conclusions of a 2014 review by academic Professor Per Binde. Mr Whittingdale said the review did not find a causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling. However, he said it did find possible evidence that advertising may adversely impact existing problem gamblers, for example hindering their efforts to cut down.

On 5 July 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on gambling-related harm, together with the organisation Peers for Gambling Reform, wrote to Mr Whittingdale setting out concerns that his June 2021 answer was misleading. The groups argued that the 2014 review was a single study and was outdated. They noted that Professor Binde had published a further paper in 2019 that concluded, “for a considerable number of people, gambling advertising substantially contributes to problem gambling”. They also referred to other research which they said did find a link. This included a survey carried out on behalf of the Gambling Commission, published in June 2021, and a further series of studies on the subject. For example, the Gambling Commission survey asked people who had seen gambling advertising how it affected their gambling activities. It found that 16% were prompted to gamble more and 15% were prompted to return to gambling after a break.

The minister responded to the groups by stating that his written answer “should not be taken to indicate a foregone conclusion on the impact of advertising”. He said that that Government welcomes research in the area and is “considering all evidence carefully” as part of its review of the Gambling Act 2005 (see section below on actions the Government and regulators are taking).

The September 2021 PHE report also considered a number of studies on the links between advertising and gambling. It said the evidence “appears to show that advertising and marketing influences gambling in adults and, to a lesser extent, children and young people”. However, in the House of Lords debate on the PHE report in October 2021, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DCMS, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, said that the review did not find evidence that exposure to advertising and marketing is a risk factor for “harmful” gambling.

A 2019 report for the gambling support service BeGambleAware found that exposure to advertising was not closely correlated with gambling participation amongst children and young and vulnerable people. It said that more important factors included the attitude of peers and carers.

A 2016 to 2018 consultation by DCMS reported that problem gambling had remained statistically stable since the 2005 act, despite a substantial increase in gambling advertising.

What rules govern gambling advertising?

The Government has stated that the Gambling Act 2005 is the basis for “virtually all” regulation of gambling. A key aspect of the act is that all gambling businesses operating in the UK must be licensed by the Gambling Commission.

The licence conditions contain a number of provisions on advertising. All firms must comply with the codes of practice issued by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP). These codes are intended to ensure that marketing for gambling is “socially responsible”. In particular, they stress the need to protect children and young and other vulnerable people. For example, the codes prohibit anyone under 25 being shown gambling within a marketing communication and prevent gambling from being linked to characteristics such as “enhanced attractiveness” or “toughness”. Both codes are overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The Gambling Commission’s licence conditions also state that gambling firms must follow the Gambling Industry Code for Socially Responsible Advertising. This code includes a 9pm ‘watershed’ for gambling advertising on television, except during live broadcast sporting events. It also states that advertising on social media should only be targeted at those over 25 years old. The code was updated in October 2020 to provide better protection for children and vulnerable consumers online. The contents of this code are agreed by the industry, but the Gambling Commission can enforce compliance.

The Betting and Gaming Council, which represents and sets standards for the betting and gaming industry in the UK, also operates codes of conduct. The council says these go “above and beyond regulatory requirements”. They incorporate the Code for Socially Responsible Advertising.

The department responsible for gambling and its regulation is DCMS. However, some have queried whether this should move to the Home Office. For example, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate (Conservative) has asked the Government whether they would consider this change. The Government responded that there were no plans to do this, but that DCMS worked very closely with the Home Office and others in overseeing the sector.

What actions are the Government and regulatory bodies taking?

In December 2020, the Government launched a review of the Gambling Act 2005. The Government said the review was in light of evidence that “too many people are still experiencing significant harm”. In particular, the review was intended to ensure that regulation was “fit for the digital age”. One section of the review is considering advertising, sponsorship and branding.

In June 2021, the Government said it aimed to publish the results of the review by the end of the year. However, it has not yet been published. In November 2021, the Government said it would publish a white paper “in due course”. In December 2021, the Guardian reported it may be delayed to spring 2022.

The Government is also reviewing online advertising more widely to ensure that regulation in the area is appropriate. In July 2021, DCMS said that a consultation would be launched in the fourth quarter of 2021 and that the Government would issue a response in 2022. The consultation has not yet been launched. On 5 January 2022, the Government said it would be “in the coming months”.

In the meantime, the CAP and BCAP codes continue to evolve. For example, additional guidance was added in November 2021. It covered areas including not presenting complex bets in a way that emphasises the skill involved and “could therefore lead to erroneous perceptions of risk or control”.

What actions have other commentators called for?

There have been a wide range of proposals to reform gambling regulation in the UK. Brief details on some of these follow.

Total ban of gambling advertising

The Royal Society for Public Health has called for a total ban on gambling advertising. However, the Government has said that advertising is a way to distinguish legitimate, regulated businesses from black market operators. The House of Lords committee did not find any justification for an outright ban.

Ban on shirt sponsorship and around sporting events

The House of Lords committee argued for a ban on shirt sponsorship and advertising at or near sports grounds. In its response, the Government said that commercial agreements had to be carried out in a “socially responsible manner” and that there was no evidence to link such advertising to gambling harms. In addition, the English Football League reportedly said that banning gambling sponsorship could cause some clubs to go out of business.

The Government’s review of the 2005 act has called for evidence in the area. The Guardian has reported that a ban on shirt sponsorship was a “strong possibility” as one of the review’s outcomes.

Lord Foster of Bath (Liberal Democrat) has also suggested banning advertising during major football tournaments. In response, the Government set out a number of existing safeguards, such as a ‘whistle to whistle’ ban on television gambling advertisements during live sport broadcasts before the watershed.

Ban on advertisements containing inducements

The House of Lords committee also called for a ban on advertisements which contain inducements to start or continue gambling. The committee referred to “free bet” offers and personalised marketing, unless the recipient has agreed to take part in a ‘VIP scheme’, which are subject to specific rules. In its response, the Government set out a number of steps already taken to restrict inducements, but committed to considering the issue as part of its review of the 2005 act.

Restricting placement of gambling advertisements

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for a later watershed for television advertising than the current 9pm. The House of Lords committee considered this proposal but said it was “not persuaded” that it would have “much effect”.

In addition, Jeff Smith (Labour MP for Manchester, Withington) has asked the Government whether children’s magazines should no longer depict football shirts that carry gambling sponsorship.

Further regulating the content of advertisements

Paul Blomfield (Labour MP for Sheffield Central) has asked whether there should be wider use of ‘trigger warnings’ within gambling advertisements, such as “when the fun stops, stop”. The Government replied that, as part of the review of the 2005 act, it would consider the effectiveness of mandatory safer gambling messages.

Research organisation Ipsos MORI has recommended that gambling advertisements be prevented from using celebrities or humour.

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Cover image by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

Updated to reflect rescheduled date of the QSD.