If you were to come up with a job title designed to repulse the public, it’d be hard to beat “gambling lobbyist”.
Lobbyist as a title conjures up images images of a professional bribe-giver, often on behalf of some deeply unpopular industries, and we all know the kind of reputation the gambling sector has.
So naturally, lawmakers are going to be scrutinised for pretty much any interaction with gambling lobbyists, highlighted by last month’s article in the New York Times on the subject.
Much has already been said about that piece in the weeks since it was published, so I won’t dwell on that.
But recent developments in Ireland show what can happen if a bill lacks adequate industry input.
Ireland’s inducement ban
This week, the Irish government published the country’s long-awaited Gambling Regulation Bill. The fact the bill would take a strict approach to marketing – especially free bets – was long known.
But the text as published appeared to risk creating a chaotically unclear situation for operators – and for Ireland’s new regulator to enforce.
Rather than defining what type of promotional activity would be banned, the bill instead simply prohibits all “inducements”.
In its analysis of the bill, Regulus Partners were one of many observers to note the unusual language.
“When words are not defined specifically in a legal context, the dictionary definition is usually assumed to be adequate for legal interpretation,” Regulus said. “Therefore, according to the Gambling Regulation Bill as it is currently drafted, an inducement is a thing that persuades or leads someone to do something.
“To put it mildly, this definition is dangerously broad for the context of the bill.”
If taken literally, virtually all forms of marketing would be banned.
It does not appear that this provision should be taken literally. Elsewhere in the bill, there are other references to advertising which wouldn’t make any sense in a context where it was banned entirely.
But where is the line between advertising and inducements? The bill does not appear interested in answering that question.
It’s the type of thing that simply couldn’t have happened if there had been more work with the industry on the finer details. Any gambling marketing officer could quickly list off promotional campaigns that, at best, fall into an ambiguous black hole under its current wording, and ask for more clarity on whether they would be permitted.
And what’s on the line for operators trying to avoid falling afoul of the rules? Not just fines, but potentially criminal proceedings and prison sentences for executives involved.
Ireland, of course, hasn’t been the first country to have this type of issue. As Marese O’Hagan wrote earlier this year, Lithuania recently brought in a ban on inducements written in similarly broad language.
The country’s regulator quickly clarified that this was not an outright ban on all marketing, only to then enforce it exactly like an outright ban on all marketing, sanctioning operators for promoting games on their homepages and sending terms and conditions emails.
Australia, too, has had trouble with poorly defined bans on inducements.
Looking beyond inducements, a Swedish legislative committee sensibly rejected an attempt to bring in a completely unclear standard for “special moderation” in gambling marketing.
And we’ll soon see how the Netherlands gets on with its ban on “untargeted” gambling ads.
Restricting gambling marketing is ultimately pretty popular in most markets. For non-gamblers, it’s their main interaction with the sector. And it certainly doesn’t help that so many gambling ads are incredibly annoying.
But, like with any issue, the public isn’t going to think through all the specifics. In a representative democracy, lawmakers can listen to those views and work alongside experts who better understand the field in order to deliver a workable version of what the voters are asking for.
That expert input can be crucial.
For all of the associations that exist with the word “lobbyist”, the job exists for a reason. It can be genuinely useful to have stakeholders providing their expertise and explaining what will work and what will not.
While a body like the UK’s Betting and Gaming Council has taken a mostly confrontational approach, industry associations can be at their strongest when they try to educate decision-makers.
Gambling lobbyists will likely never be beloved. But they can’t be ignored.