Gambling: regulating an out-of-control addiction

Gambling disorder is a major public health concern in Ireland today and we urgently need proper regulation and legislation on gambling control and gambling advertising

Dr Stephen McWilliams, Consultant Psychiatrist, Saint John of God Hospital, Stillorgan

February 1, 2023

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  • Ireland currently ranks fourth among gambling nations in the European Union, with our punters losing an estimated €1.36 billion annually (averaging €300 for every adult in the country) through their gambling activities.1 From a global perspective, Ireland ranks 14th, marginally ahead of the UK and just behind Finland, Malta and Sweden. There also seems to be a recent movement towards online gambling compared to betting shops and racecourses. Almost half of all betting in Ireland was online in 2020. 

    A 2020 position paper on Gambling Disorder published by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland outlined the seriousness of gambling disorder, particularly in the context of rapid advances in online technology that have likely led to an increase in the prevalence of the disorder.2 The College cited gambling disorder as a major public health concern and called for the regulation of gambling advertising, legislation on gambling control, public and professional education about gambling disorder, enhanced treatment services and further research. 

    The Gambling Regulation Bill, aimed at strengthening control over the gambling industry, is currently going through various stages in the Oireachtas. Among the Bill’s many proposed changes is a ban on the media advertising of gambling between 5.30am and 9pm, while those who wish to receive social media advertising will have to opt in. A National Gambling Exclusion Register is to be established. Gambling companies will no longer be allowed to offer inducements to punters, such as enhanced odds, special hospitality or other VIP treatment. But the Bill does involve the establishment of a social impact fund fed by a mandatory levy on gambling institutions (based on annual turnover). The fund will pay for education and awareness, and the treatment of gambling addiction. The Bill prohibits children from entering a gambling establishment, while betting companies will be responsible for ensuring that children do not use their online services. The Bill also includes provisions against money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Numerous other changes are proposed. 

    September saw the appointment of Anne Marie Caulfield (who previously led the Residential Tenancies Board) to head the new Gambling Regulation Authority (GRA), which will have strong powers of enforcement. General breaches will carry fines of up to €20 million or 10% of annual turnover (whichever is higher) or a maximum prison sentence of five years. Transgressions that involve children will carry a maximum prison sentence of up to eight years. The new Bill is the first major overhaul of gambling regulation in Ireland in 67 years and is expected to be signed into law this year.

    The gambling industry has lobbied extensively against the Gambling Regulation Bill. The Irish Bookmakers Association (IBA) told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that the Bill would essentially yield a “blanket ban on sponsorship at stadiums and racetracks” which would divert a lot of revenue out of Ireland. Flutter – the parent company of Paddy Power and Betfair – argued in favour of retaining VIP services in the belief that they can identify those addicted to gambling to prevent them being targeted with such inducements. 

    A notable contributor to the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland position paper is Prof Colin O’Gara, head of addiction services at Saint John of God Hospital, Dublin, who has been campaigning for the increased regulation of gambling in Ireland for several years. In the February issue of Hospital Doctor of Ireland, he writes about the effects of gambling addiction in Ireland and the improvements it is hoped the new legislation will make.  


    © Medmedia Publications/Hospital Doctor of Ireland 2023