Belgium's planned ban on gambling advertising has come under renewed fire from the country’s gambling regulator over fears it will strengthen the black market, despite there being no firm evidence to support the claim.
During an interview on Bel RTL on February 22, the president of the Belgian Gaming Commission, Magali Clavie, criticised the ad ban, saying it is “not a good solution” to meet the government’s aims of reducing stakes or tackling problem gambling concerns.
Clavie’s comments are a reiteration of what the regulator has been saying for months. Officials argue that when legal operators are not allowed to advertise, illegal sites will continue to try and circumvent the rules and promote their products.
There are similar debates unfolding in other European jurisdictions, such as the Netherlands, which is opting for heavy restrictions on advertising as opposed to a full ban.
Maarten Haijer, secretary general at the European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA), praised Clavie’s comments for “rightly” warning that the ban “risks undermining the country’s regulated, licensed online gambling offer”.
“Situations across Europe differ of course, but it's really important that regulators do publicly speak out in support of a well-functioning, regulated market. The only alternative is the black market, and that is in nobody’s interest,” Haijer said.
However, a spokesperson for the Belgian Gaming Commission admitted to VIXIO GamblingCompliance that “there is, unfortunately, no scientific evidence yet available in Belgium that supports this fear”.
Despite this, the regulator argues that “it is only logical” that the ban will cause more players to turn to the illegal market.
A separate article published on February 23, 2023 by Bram Constandt, a professor of sports management at Ghent University who is undertaking several research projects relating to gambling advertising, says “there is more to gain than to lose with the ban on gambling advertising”.
It follows Constandt’s research which found that gambling advertising is so ubiquitous in sports that it is “normalised and has a positive image, which lowers the threshold for any form of gambling”.
Constandt dismisses fears that players will turn to the black market, instead he believes they will simply wager less.
Additionally, Constandt said research shows any money lost from sports teams' sponsorship deals, which will be phased out under the ad ban, will quickly be replaced.
The researcher did admit that “however good legal provisions may be, loopholes are still easily found in a primarily online and difficult to control the market with no real borders”.
Even though advertising is already forbidden for illegal sites in Belgium, the regulator said it fights against them “with difficulty” and that many applications for self-exclusion from third parties reveal that some problem gamblers are not even registered on any legal gambling sites.
“This too shows that players, unfortunately, find their way smoothly to the illegal market,” the regulator said.
Calvie’s interview also takes aim at what she calls a “double standard”, as the National Lottery is not included in the advertising ban.
“We cannot say: if it is the state which organises the game, it is not addictive. The question is not who organises the game but what the game is. It is understandable that some games are less dangerous than others, but this is not necessarily the case with all National Lottery products,” Clavie said.
The National Lottery product Scooore, a sports-betting product, will have to stop advertising. However, all other lottery products will still be able to be advertised, the regulator explained.
“It is possible that in the medium term, restrictions will also be imposed on the National Lottery, but nothing is really announced or been made concrete at this stage. We ask that all types of gambling should be approached in the same way,” the Belgium Gaming Commission said.
In April 2022, the regulator published its views on gambling advertising, revealing support for more restrictions and for its enforcement powers to be expanded.
Despite this, on December 16, 2022, the Belgian government finalised the draft royal decree to severely restrict gambling advertising, adding that the new restrictions are scheduled to take effect from July 1, 2023.
The proposed ban still reportedly faces opposition, as the decree has not yet been approved, member of parliament Georges-Louis Bouchez recently told Het Laatste Nieuws.
Separately, Belgium’s regulator released its report on the market’s activity during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, revealing that despite online stakes reaching a record 217m, there was an overall decline in betting, as offline bets dropped from 130m during the 2018 World Cup to 61m in 2022.
Clavie said the figures were “reassuring”, as people's betting habits appeared to return to normal after the event.
“This is very important for the Gaming Commission as it is essential that betting remains purely recreational and does not degenerate into gambling addiction. The Gaming Commission will continue its information and awareness campaigns, especially for young people, and continue to advocate for better regulation of online gambling,” she said.