An Australian parliamentary committee has called for online gambling advertising to be banned in its entirety in four phases over three years, the most punishing of 31 sweeping recommendations that industry lobbyists call “a step too far” and “short-sighted”.
The federal parliament’s lower house Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs released the 169-page report into harmful online gambling impacts on Tuesday (June 27).
The toughly worded report, unusual for its unanimity, has taken few prisoners with the Australian online gambling segment, a market predominantly involving sports betting and wagering on racing codes but not allowing online casinos.
Committee chair Peta Murphy said in the introduction to the non-binding document that online gambling is inconsistently regulated across the nation’s states and territories and is “wreaking havoc in our communities”, justifying the creation of a national online regulator and “no room for circumvention” of a ban in broadcast or online spaces.
“Australians do not like being flooded by messages and inducements to gamble online and worry about the effect this is having on children and young people,” she said.
“Despite gambling harm being a major public health issue, we do not treat it like one. Instead, our policies and regulation encourage ‘responsible gambling’, which absolves online [operators] of much of the responsibility for the harm their products cause.”
The committee’s four-phase ban on advertising would start immediately, with a block on all inducements and “inducement advertising” and the removal of an advertising exemption covering news and current affairs programmes.
The second phase would quarantine sports broadcasts by banning advertising and in-house betting odds commentary to one hour before and after the programme, instead of the current five-minute buffer, as well as banning stadium advertising and logos on sports uniforms.
The final phase would restrict gambling advertising to between 10pm and 6am, then ban advertising and sponsorship outright by the end of the third year.
The sole exemption to the ban would apply to “dedicated racing channels and programming”.
The report said sporting codes and media that receive gambling sponsorships and advertising were “largely in lockstep” with gambling companies in “grooming children” to gamble and resisting reform.
“Online gambling has been deliberately and strategically marketed alongside sport, which has normalised it as a fun, harmless, and sociable activity that is part of a favourite pastime,” Murphy wrote.
“Gambling advertising is grooming children and young people to gamble and encourages riskier behaviour. The torrent of advertising is inescapable. It is manipulating an impressionable and vulnerable audience to gamble online.”
Corporate bookmaker lobby group Responsible Wagering Australia (RWA) said in a statement on Wednesday that the government should take a “balanced approach” and ignore the report’s call for a full advertising ban, describing it as a “step too far”.
CEO Kai Cantwell said the industry had acknowledged the need to reduce advertising volume, but that “blanket bans — even in a phased roll out — are short-sighted, ineffective and are not the answer”.
The committee report also recommends that a single federal minister oversee the sector and that a national regulator be formed to police it, with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to be upgraded from the “narrow” regulatory role it now plays to one of enforcement.
The new regulator would have the “sole purpose of reducing harm and [have] responsibility for all licensing and regulation”, it said, notwithstanding potential overlap or conflict with state government regulators.
"There is too much potential for the gambling industry to be involved in the development of gambling regulation and policy in Australia," the report says.
"Australia’s licensed [operators] have been successful in framing the issue of gambling harm around personal responsibility while diminishing industry and government responsibility."
Other possible reforms point to new costs for the online industry in addition to the purging of the advertising space.
Corporate bookmakers would be levied to fund a new set of “national strategy harm introduction measures”, extending from the current National Consumer Protection Framework, as well as funding additional regulatory functions.
The public health measures would include prevention, early intervention and treatment for harmed gamblers, complementing an aggressive new public education campaign on gambling harm and boosting funds for gambling research.
Other recommendations include:
- Possible minimum bet limits.
- A ban on all commissions to staff or third parties for customer account referrals.
- Disclosure of all player data to the regulator and “approved researchers”.
- A technical strategy to block offshore websites “quickly and more effectively” than the ACMA now provides.
- A protocol for blocking payment transactions in conjunction with financial service providers, as well as introducing gambling consumer protection standards for those institutions.
- Tougher sanctions for foreign and domestic individuals and companies that flout Australian law.
- Making customer duty of care an active legal responsibility.
- Possible imposition of a “standard behavioural algorithm” on operators to reduce online gambling harm.
- A national database for gambling harm and suicide.
- Improved communication with foreign officials on combatting illegal online gambling.
Finally, the report recommends legal clarity for, and tighter regulation of, loot boxes in interactive gaming, including consistent age classification for online products and possible imposition of spending controls and transparent odds data for individual items.
Public and activist anger, the progressive weakening of the Australian gambling lobby’s influence after years of government probes, scandal and disgrace for the land-based sector, and the accelerating prosecution of online gambling advertising breaches at state and federal levels, have left the industry highly vulnerable to the report’s consensus call for reform across the board.
Two bills on gambling advertising have already been tabled by non-government lawmakers, with one backing a complete ban, although these are likely to be superseded by a comprehensive government bill.
The Labor government will consider the report before releasing an in-principle list of responses to the recommendations.