Sport is used to normalize gambling. We should treat the problem just like smoking

Turn on the TV and you are four times more likely to see a gambling ad on a sports broadcast than on other programs.

The number of gambling adverts on TV rose from 374 per day in 2016 to 948 in 2021. The Australian Football League and National Rubgy League have an official betting partner, whose logo is prominently displayed. Individual clubs have sponsorship deals with gambling companies, displaying their logos on team shirts.

It’s something Prime Minister Anthony Albanese agrees is annoying, after Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton proposed banning gambling ads an hour before and after sports matches.

Currently, a voluntary code regulates when these ads can be shown. Generally this means they are not allowed in until after 8.30pm. But as any parent will tell you, that won’t stop sports-loving kids from seeing them.

Children are regularly and heavily exposed to these ads. Parents are alarmed by how their children view sports. It’s no longer just about the game, the players or the teams. Now the kids act out the bookies marks and the odds as they discuss the weekend sport.

Normalization of harmful behavior

As with cigarette marketing in decades past, sports sponsorship and advertising have been the primary mechanism for the aggressive normalization of gambling. Present betting on your team (especially with your teammates) as the sign of a devoted fan.

Associating a product with a popular pastime and sports and other heroes is a clear tactic of the harmful goods industries from tobacco, alcohol, fast food and gambling.

Alarming evidence is emerging showing how young people are being impacted by this marketing. This includes evidence that youth exposure to gambling ads is linked to adult gambling activity.

Gambling ads are effective at persuading people to place specific bets and encouraging their friends to join.

Young people are particularly sensitive. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, more than 70% of male bettors aged 18-35 are at risk of harm.

Proportion of Australian adults who have gambled and been classified as at risk of gambling harm in the past 12 months.
Proportion of Australian adults who have gambled and been classified as at risk of gambling harm in the past 12 months.

What are other countries doing

These concerns have now led to more countries banning gambling ads altogether.

The Netherlands will ban all gambling ads on TV, radio, print and billboards from July, with strict conditions on online advertising. The ban on club sponsorship will take effect in 2025.

Belgium is going further by also banning online gambling ads since July. It will ban stadium advertising from 2025 and club sponsorship from 2028.

Spain has imposed a blanket ban on gambling advertising in 2021 and Italy in 2019.

In the UK, the Premier League last month agreed to ban bookie logos from players’ shirts, although critics say that barely solves the scale of the problem.

Read more: The ban on gambling advertising in front of the Premier League shirt is a flawed approach. Australia should learn from this

Advertising in stadiums for betting, displayed during an AFL game, helps normalize gambling.
Advertising in stadiums helps normalize gambling.
Joel Carrett/AAP

How to denormalize harmful behavior

Denormalisation has been a key strategy of Australia’s tobacco control efforts. These are now seen as a huge public health success, with smoking and associated disease rates falling dramatically.

There are at least two aspects to the denormalization of harmful products.

The first is to reduce the avenues through which the product can be promoted. With tobacco this also includes the regulation of packaging. For gambling, eliminating all forms of gambling promotion at sporting events is the obvious first step.

It is also important to have counter marketing. When Victoria banned tobacco sponsorship in 1987, it set up the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, funded by tobacco taxes, initially to support teams that had lost their sponsorship.

If gambling ads were banned, it would make sense to replace at least some of the bookmaker ads with messages that help people kick their gambling habit or get help if they already have a problem.

Stadium advertisement for gambling at an NRL match.

Darren Pateman/AAP

What needs to be done

If the current parliamentary inquiry into online gambling makes recommendations in line with the observations of concerned citizens and non-governmental organisations, we can expect an extension of the current restrictions. This should include a ban on advertising in line with Peter Dutton’s suggestions.

It would also make sense to go beyond simple restrictions on broadcast ads, to include online and social media promotion.

Even though gambling companies spend most of their marketing dollars on television, social media use is on the rise, with alcohol and gambling ads deliberately targeting young people. This is despite platforms like Facebook saying it doesn’t allow targeting of online gambling and game ads to people under the age of 18.

Read more: Odds you’ll bet on the Grand Final are high when punting is woven into our social fabric

A schedule of successive marketing restrictions, toward outright bans, may give the television industry and sports codes time to field new sponsors.

There is a need for national uniformity, with a national regulator to replace the current clumsy arrangements. And only the federal government has any hope of regulating social media.

We have reaped huge benefits from removing tobacco advertising from our television screens and billboards. We have an opportunity to protect a new generation from further serious and avoidable harm from gambling.

No one can say Australian sport is any worse off without tobacco ads.

Providing a clear timeline for an end to gambling announcements will give our professional sports organizations the incentive they need to find an ethical solution that avoids entrapping a new generation into gambling harms.

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