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Politics & Law Series: Expert Comment

Gambling and the protection of minors

Senior Lecturer in The City Law School, Margaret Carran, argues that liberalisation and the substantial expansion of gambling opportunities facilitated by the Gambling Act 2005 as amended by the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014, have severely limited the protection of minors from gambling-related harm.
by John Stevenson (Senior Communications Officer)

By Margaret Carran, Senior Lecturer in The City Law School

Margaret CarranGambling continues to remain a contentious social construct. While many advantages, such as increased revenues, employment opportunities or benefits to social welfare may be directly attributed to gambling, engagement in this form of entertainment is not risk-free. Problem gambling is officially recognised as a mental disorder, and the development of such an addiction that may in itself lead to suicide is probably the most devastating (albeit not the only one) potential risk associated with gambling. Minors are specifically identified as being at substantially higher risk of developing gambling-related problems if they become attracted to and start gambling at too early age. Not only adults who suffer gambling-related problems typically admit to have had an early initiation, but some young people suffer negative consequences during their childhood. It is concerning that the latest Young People Omnibus Survey (2014) identified 0.7% of children aged between 11 and 16 years and who are not even yet legally permitted to engage in most forms of commercial gambling, as problem gamblers.

Legitimate entertainment

The Gambling Act aimed to balance the economic consideration with the wider public health perspective. The third licensing objective that, together with the other two, underpin the whole regulatory policy dictates that children and other vulnerable persons [are protected] from being harmed or exploited by gambling (s.1(c)). Accordingly, the starting premise is that minors should not typically be engaged in gambling and they should not be intentionally targeted with gambling advertising (s.46(3)). Nevertheless, the existing legislative framework represented a significant policy change. Prior regimes treated commercial gambling as tolerated out of necessity but a non-stimulated and contained activity. Currently, commercial gambling is legally positioned as a legitimate entertainment that must be regulated in order to prevent social harm but that can be offered and encouraged relatively unrestricted. The limits on expansion are not imposed by regulator but determined by market forces and providers can stimulate consumption by commercial advertising.

This has inevitably created tensions between the proliferation of gambling opportunities and the need to protect the younger population, especially as the prohibition of minors’ engagement in gambling is far from absolute. Great Britain is unique within the Western world in that it permits children of any age to play on Category D gambling machines and young people are legally able to play lottery, scratchcards, or participate in football pools. Although the existence of harm resulting from such gambling is contested, none have been proved to be harmless. Furthermore, the statutory prohibition of minors’ access to ‘hard’ forms of gambling has not, as yet, produced overall satisfactory levels of compliance. Contrary to popular expectations, online age-verification measures appear largely successful at ensuring that minors are not allowed to gamble online under their own name for more than 72 hours but processes in some land-based venues continue to be in need of substantial improvements. Moreover, gambling providers’ measures cannot overcome the environmental risks of adults facilitating gambling by children and further efforts should be directed to this area. The permitted ubiquity of gambling advertising, the proliferation of betting venues on British high streets and the popularity of lottery use as fundraising methods, contributes towards ‘normalisation’ of gambling that is not sufficiently counterbalanced by other measures and which potentially further undermine minors’ protection.

Contrasting possibilities

The omnipresence of social/‘demo’ gambling also needs to be more actively addressed. Lack of prizes equal to ‘money or money’s worth’ removes them from the remit of gambling regulations but the technological convergence between real and ‘fun’ gambling substantially blurs the distinctions. These games can be played by minors but may entice them to try real gambling or it may indeed disincentive them from risking real money if they can play for free. These contrasting possibilities means that more empirical studies are needed that examine those issues.

Minors’ protection from gambling-related harm is a very complex issue. It requires on-going conversations not only between the regulators and the industry but which must extend to minors themselves, whole families and schools. This is not, as yet, happening at any sufficient level.

Fortunately, the majority of children appear uninterested in ‘hard core' gambling but those who are so interested, are not sufficiently protected.

The Gambling Commission

The Gambling Commission was set up under the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate commercial gambling in Great Britain in partnership with licensing authorities. It regulates the National Lottery under the National Lottery etc. Act 1993. It is also an independent non-departmental public body (NDPB) sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). On 1 November 2014 the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 came into force. This Act requires any operator wishing to transact with, or advertise to, consumers in Britain to obtain an operating licence from the Gambling Commission.

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