In Spain as in the UK, those on either side of otherwise wholly riven political divides now appear united on the need for further restrictions on gambling. But there are some battles the industry can and should be focused on winning, argues Scott Longley
The degree to which, to twist the normal phrase, we need to take the statements of politicians when they are talking about gambling both seriously and literally is evident right now in the UK and Spain.
To take the UK first. In the midst of a general election campaign that appears to be plumbing new depths of mendacity, for the gambling industry the various manifesto commitments of the major parties need to be addressed.
The ruling Conservative Party said at the end of the month that it would review the Gambling Act with particular attention being paid to credit card payments and video loot boxes.
This followed on from the Labour Party’s commitment also revisit the Gambling Act while also introducing a statutory levy to fund problem gambling initiatives as well as unspecified ‘gambling limits’ while the Liberal Democrats also pledged to end credit card transactions for gambling and would legislate for further responsible gambling measures.
This cross-party consensus for action to be taken resembles the trajectory of the debate elsewhere, notably in Spain where the new PSOE and Podemos coalition agreement makes mention of gambling as one area where the two sides definitely agree.
Hoping to head off further measures around advertising – where the prospect looms of a total ban on advertising – Spanish online operators’ lobby group Jdigital announced a voluntary code which included a whistle-to-whistle ban as well as the setting of new bonus limits and the ending of endorsements by sports stars.
These are all sensible measures but the impression from the recent Gaming in Spain conference in Madrid was that the issue was near enough settled and that a full-on advertising ban was in the offing.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” said Santiago Asensi, lawyer with Asensi Abogados, from the stage. “This is no longer a bureaucratic issue – this is societal issue,” he added. “My absolute bet is that the government will push for these things.”
His view was echoed by María Rosa Rotondo, managing partner for Spain and Portugal at Political Intelligence, who said the gambling industry now had “no allies in Parliament.”
“The reputation of the online sector is contaminated by the bad reputation of land-based gambling halls and betting shops,” she added. “At present, neither society nor politicians differentiate between online and land-based gambling.”
This was also alluded to by Juan Espinosa Garcia, director general at the Directorate General for the Regulation of Gambling (DGOJ), who made the point that complaints about betting to local authorities about the number of high-street betting shops, had grown “exponentially”.
The cross-contamination between online and land-based concerns is familiar to anyone who has followed the debate in the UK and it is problematic because, in the UK at least, a focus on land-based betting meant the industry’s opponents were able to follow a divide-and-rule strategy.
A viable future for all
This is particularly dangerous given that when it comes to politics, gambling appears to be one of the very few issues where those on either side of otherwise wholly riven political divides can meet in the middle.
Espinosa Garcia said in Madrid that the industry had to work to ensure it was “socially viable” and this is true in other jurisdictions as much as it is in Spain. He noted, for instance, that the sector had recently received a boost via a cut in taxes and that it “there has to be something in return” from the sector.
The measures announced by Jdigital are doubtless an attempt to do just that but they are likely to be superseded by further action on advertising. What the industry does in response is vital.
In the UK, meanwhile, what was an anti-FOBT campaign has now transmuted into a full-on anti-gambling campaign with the latest measure to be floated a £2 maximum stake for online gaming.
As has been said elsewhere, for the industry to combat this argument out-of-hand rejections will not suffice. Again at Gaming in Spain, Matt Zarb-Cousin, now at co-founder of Gamban and previously a prominent campaigner against FOBTs, said the inability of the gambling companies to even address affordability limits is harming the industry in the eyes of the legislators.
Now, there are some very good reasons why the introduction of affordability limits on gambling spend as a proportion of income might not work, not least because players could simply use multiple accounts.
But these arguments can and should be discussed in public. To not even engage hands opponents a stick with which to beat the industry and currently the campaigners hold a lot of sticks.
The manifesto mentions in the UK and the inclusion of gambling within the Spanish coalition agreement suggest that some battles have been lost. But the wider war to establish, in the words of Espinosa Garcia, social viability is still there to be won.