As the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) prepares for the possibility of having to regulate sports betting, commissioners are considering establishing new guidelines to oversee the gaming industry’s advertising practices.
Over the last few months, the commission has discussed several proposals to control the tone and amount of gambling advertising in the state, which were first set out in a draft white paper released in March.
Last week, Mark Vander Linden, MGC’s director of research and responsible gaming, presented an updated draft of the Responsible Gaming Considerations for Gambling Advertising paper to the commission following a public comment period on the initial set of enhanced guidelines.
The updated draft report covers current regulations in Massachusetts and other U.S. states, plus Ontario, as well as an overview of research related to problem gambling and advertising, along with a series of new regulations that commissioners could approve.
“This is the best of what we know at this point in time,” Vander Linden told commissioners on Thursday (June 9). “We are going to continue to research this. I don’t think it should stop the commission from considering what is actionable at this point in time.”
Commissioner Eileen O’Brien described the updated proposals as “incredibly timely,” especially as a small group of lawmakers continue to try to settle their differences over contrasting sports-betting bills and finalize legislation for sports betting.
Vander Linden confirmed that MGC officials would submit a final draft for the MGC’s consideration but did not give a timeline.
During a 20-minute presentation, Long Banh, program manager for the MGC, said the updated recommendations draw on regulations already adopted by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) prior to the launch of online sports betting and iGaming in the province on April 4.
He noted that among the AGCO regulations are rules saying gambling inducements, bonuses and credits must not be described as free unless the inducement, bonus, or credit really is free.
Banh told the commission that officials also recommend borrowing AGCO regulations that prohibit any advertising that suggests gambling can solve personal or professional problems, implies that chances of winning increase the longer one plays or the more one spends, and suggests skill can influence the outcome.
“We really liked these regulations that Ontario used to prevent misleading [advertising] or encouraging risky gambling behaviours,” Banh said. “We adopted and recommend these three regulations.”
He said the updated draft recommendations also include wording reminding licensees that “advertising should not target high risk, underage or self-excluded persons.”
Existing Massachusetts regulations provide protection for those under the age of 21 and participants in the voluntary exclusion program, but researchers urged the commission to support additional measures, including restricting advertising and marketing campaigns that disproportionately target high-risk groups.
The report also suggests prohibiting advertising placement “with such frequency that it saturates that communication medium, or in some cases, location.”
Those advertising restrictions should cover messages placed in digital media, commercial marketing emails or text messages, social media sites and downloadable content.
“After conversations with individuals over the last couple of months, it’s true that there are certain considerations that would be incredible difficult to monitor and may not be suited for regulation but at the same time, they are important considerations as we and licensees consider gambling advertising practices,” Vander Linden said.
He told the commission they struck from the latest draft a proposal that a Massachusetts gaming licensee dedicates a certain amount of their budget to responsible gambling.
“It’s not that I don’t, or we don’t, believe that this was necessarily a bad idea, but we do feel that there are other alternatives for responsible gaming messages to be included,” Vander Linden said. “We felt comfortable striking this from the requirements.”
Some of the other proposals that are expected to remain in the final draft recommendations were taken from the advertising regulations of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.
The cannabis rules include prohibiting advertising in a manner deemed to be deceptive, misleading, false or fraudulent, or that tends to deceive or create a misleading impression, whether directly or by omission or ambiguity.
They also prohibit the use of unsolicited pop-up advertisements on the internet or text message, unless the person is 21 years of age or older and includes a permanent and easy opt-out feature.
Vander Linden and his colleagues also propose updating the MGC’s Responsible Gaming Framework, released in 2018, and the Applying Principles of Massachusetts Responsible Gaming Framework to Sports Wagering Policy and Practice, which was issued last year.
Both reports should include updated content and recommendations, especially regarding gambling advertising.
Finally, because there is ambiguity on the impact gambling advertising has on state residents, Vander Linden recommended the MGC conduct additional studies to investigate the impact of ads on the population, including higher-risk populations, and the impact of regulation on gambling behavior and harms.
The report also recommends studying new forms of gambling advertising, such as online and through social networks.