Time for action on National Lottery age limit

| By Joanne Christie
The government’s decision to raise the minimum age for playing the National Lottery will hopefully draw a line under an issue that brought lots of bad press to the sector for very little financial gain. Joanne Christie reports.
National Lottery

So far, the only concrete change to come out of the much-hyped forthcoming overhaul of British gambling laws is the raising of the age at which players can play the National Lottery from 16 to 18.

But rather than being a blow to incumbent Camelot and its competitors in the race for the fourth National Lottery tender, and unlike some of the decisions expected to result from the review, the news probably came as a relief.

Particularly over the past year or so, Camelot has repeatedly come under fire for, to quote an investigation published in The Sunday Times in July, “exploiting a loophole that allows children to gamble hundreds of pounds a week online”. 

The newspaper suggested that some of Camelot’s games appeared to target children, and said: “The normal minimum age for gambling is 18, leaving lotteries like Camelot, which runs the lottery, having exclusive access to a teenage market denied to other betting firms.”

Various other anti-gambling campaigners and newspapers jumped on board the anti-Camelot bandwagon, with a number of headlines claiming it allowed children to gamble up to £350 a week.

Technically speaking this may be true, as the weekly deposit limit of £350 applies to players of all ages. 

An exaggerated issue?

But the reality of spending habits for players under 18 is rather different, says Richard Hickson, Camelot’s head of policy and public affairs.

“The weekly deposit limit for the National Lottery website is £350 a week. However, the average weekly spend for this age group is under £5. 

“And, to put it into context, out of more than 8.5m active registered online National Lottery players, only around 3,300 of them are currently aged 16 and 17.”

With such modest revenues from the players in question, it seems likely the bad PR would have far outweighed the financial rewards for Camelot and it repeatedly said when asked beforehand that it didn’t oppose the age being raised. 

Shortly after the announcement, a Camelot spokesperson pointed out: “We’ve said all along that we would fully support any decision made by the government to raise the minimum age to play.”

In anyone was dragging its feet, it was perhaps the government and indeed, Hickson says Camelot was not in a position to make the decision itself.

“We would have been unable to unilaterally change the law or our current operating licence, which requires us to sell National Lottery products to anyone who is eligible and is aged 16 years or over,” he says. 

“Now that the decision has been made, we’ll be doing everything we can to implement the necessary changes as quickly as possible.”

It won’t happen ‘overnight’

For some critics, however, this is not quickly enough and Camelot CEO Nigel Railton was criticised in November after telling a session of the APPG on Gambling Related Harm that Camelot may need up to a year to implement the changes.

Predictably, APPG chair Carolyn Harris described Camelot’s proposed timeframe as “unacceptable”, while Conservative MP Richard Holden told the Telegraph it was, “farcical to suggest that it would take 12 months to replace a few sticky signs in shops”.

However, Hickson says it isn’t that simple. “The National Lottery is a vast and complex operation, with a network of 44,000 independently owned retailers across the UK and more than 8.5m active registered players, making it Europe’s largest online lottery in terms of sales. 

“With our operating licence requiring us to ensure that the minimum age to play appears on all physical materials, as well as in all online channels, the changeover will not happen overnight. This isn’t simply a case of sending new stickers to retailers or flicking an online switch.”

In retail he says about 80 individual items need changing or removing and in online more than 50 separate areas need to be addressed. 

“On top of that, any Covid-19 restrictions will need to be taken into account to ensure that we implement the changes as safely and responsibly as possible,” he adds.

In any case, the government has given Camelot until October next year to make the necessary changes, although Camelot has since said it will make all changes before this, with all online changes to be complete by April.

Online the problem area

This should perhaps stand it in good stead given it’s the online channel that seems to have pushed the government to take action. When the decision was announced on December 8, Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage Nigel Huddleston referenced the trend towards online play as a key factor.

“Patterns of play have changed since its inception, with a shift towards online games, and this change will help make sure the National Lottery, although already low-risk, is not a gateway to problem gambling,” he said. 

Clean Up Gambling founder Matt Zarb-Cousin also identifies online as a key problem area: “Allowing under 18s to buy lottery tickets means they’re also allowed to engage in scratch cards and online instant wins, which have more in common with online casino games than the National Lottery draw. 

“Permitting children to gamble up to £350 a week on these products was a mistake, and it is welcome that the government has already committed to increasing the minimum age to 18.”

Camelot’s most public rival in the bid for the fourth National Lottery tender, Sazka, appeared to be of a similar view when it released a statement in support of raising the age prior to the government’s decision. It referenced the fact that while it limited sales of all lottery products in four of its five European markets, it also restricted online sales in the fifth.

“We support the change because this is the age limit in four of our existing European lottery markets, where we have proven that innovation and strong player protection measures can work in tandem to grow lottery sales and fund good causes,” a spokesperson told iGB. 

“You must be 18 to purchase lottery products in all of our markets with the exception of Austria, where the age limit is 16 in retail stores in accordance with domestic law.”

Whether Sazka can gain any political advantage in the tender process for its anti-under-18s stance and track record remains to be seen and will depend to some extent on Camelot’s rollout of the changes.

But a perhaps more important political question to be raised by the government’s National Lottery announcement is how much further it will go on restricting gambling or gambling-like activities for under-18s.

While National Lottery sales to children may have been one focus of recent negative attention, the situation with loot boxes is arguably a much bigger issue.

Indeed, Mark Griffiths, psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, told iGB last year that if there had been an increase in problem gambling among young people, as was reported at the time, it was simulated gambling activities such as loot boxes that were the most likely cause.

“As far as I’m concerned loot boxes are a form of gambling,” he said, with his view having been echoed by many others recently, including a House of Commons Committee and the Children’s Commissioner for England.

Although the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s announcement on the review of gambling laws didn’t specifically say loot boxes were under review, it referenced the government’s call for evidence on the topic, which was launched in September.  

Given the House of Lords Gambling Select Committee recommended in July that the government shouldn’t wait for the Gambling Act review to classify loot boxes as gambling and that one of its other recommendations was to raise the National Lottery age to 18, it’s entirely possible loot boxes could be next in the government’s firing line.

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