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Canadian Lawmakers Pushed to Ban Sports Betting Ads Entirely

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Some Canadians don’t want ads for sports betting regulated — they want them eliminated and are pressing lawmakers in Ottawa to make it happen.

Those calls for a total ban on marketing for sports betting ads in Canada were voiced again on Wednesday during a meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.

The meeting was the second this week regarding Bill S-269, the National Framework on Advertising for Sports Betting Act. The legislation, as its name suggests, proposes a Canada-wide framework for event wagering ads. 

But for some experts, prohibition, not regulation, is their preference. 

Bruce Kidd, a former Olympic distance runner and a steering member of the Campaign to Ban Advertising for Gambling, told the Senate committee there has been a “tsunami” of gambling ads since Canadian lawmakers decriminalized single-game sports betting in 2021. 

In the run-up to the passage of that legislation, there was no debate about the advertising-related consequences, Kidd said, calling it a “huge failure” of public policymaking.

He noted Statistics Canada reported in 2022 that approximately 300,000 people in the country were at moderate-to-severe risk of a gambling problem and said they have heard from parents, coaches, and teachers warning of young people being nudged toward wagering.

“The federal government must assume responsibility for this situation which they’ve created,” Kidd told senators. “The most effective strategy of public health harm reduction is to ban the ads.”

‘Weaponizing psychology’

Kidd’s call for a total ban was echoed by Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough appearing before the committee on behalf of the Canadian Psychological Association.

Joordens said gambling firms are “weaponizing psychology” to convince audiences to bet, “normalizing and glorifying” wagering in cooperation with sport and media companies so effectively that more than 19 million Canadians have done so. 

Adults who want to gamble know where they can find that action, he suggested, but those who don’t, as well as youth, shouldn’t have to see that marketing. 

“If we are going to allow gambling, we must ban any marketing of gambling as we do other products like cigarettes and cannabis,” Joordens told the committee. 

No ban for now

Prohibition has become a popular idea among critics and the general population since single-game wagering was authorized and after Ontario launched a competitive market for iGaming in 2022 that includes dozens of sites advertising themselves to residents.

A Maru Public Opinion poll released in March found that 59% of respondents believed a nationwide ban on sports betting commercials should be enacted as soon as possible. In Ontario, opposition lawmakers introduced a bill last June to ban iGaming advertising, but it has made little progress.

Even the sponsor of Bill S-269 is supportive of prohibiting ads. There are, however, questions about whether it would withstand a challenge through the courts, as gambling may not pose the same sort of immediate harm as tobacco, and therefore an outright ban may not be legally acceptable. 

“If the government wants to pursue a full ban, I and so many others would love that,” Ontario Sen. Marty Deacon said on Wednesday. “We just didn’t think this bill would survive a constitutional challenge if we sought a complete ban and didn’t want perfect to be the enemy of good.”

But the calls for banning marketing for sports betting in Canada aren’t likely to go away, especially as more data emerges.

For example, a study unveiled in January by the CBC’s Marketplace program and researchers at the University Bristol examined five NHL games and two NBA games broadcast in Canada last October and found gambling-related messages were visible around 20% of the time on average.

Joordens told the Senate committee that estimates of problem gambling in the population range from 2% to 5% but that is based on self-reporting, and likely underestimates the problem as most addicts deny they have an issue until they hit bottom. Moreover, he said gambling addiction has a recidivism rate of more than 90%. 

“Once addicted, it’s almost impossible to stop,” Joordens told the senators. 

Consumer confusion

While Bill S-269 wouldn’t ban sports betting ads (and may never become law at all, as it has yet to even pass the Senate), it could provide a way to limit the number of commercials and restrict their location. That would require the support of the provinces that oversee gambling in Canada, not just the federal government which the legislation tasks with developing the ad framework.

Bill S-269’s framework would identify ways to promote intergovernmental information sharing about the prevention and diagnosis of minors who engage in harmful gambling and measures to help people with addiction. It would also require the Minister of Canadian Heritage to consult with the provinces and territories, which may not necessarily agree with curtailing advertising or subjecting it to certain restrictions. 

That may be especially true for provinces where there is only one legal provider of online gambling, which is typically a government-owned entity. That is almost entirely the case in every province but Ontario, which has a competitive market that is the first of its kind for Canada. 

Will Hill, the executive director for the Canadian Lottery Coalition, said the group’s members are forced to fight daily for business with illegal sports betting operators advertising themselves to residents who may not be aware of the law.

The consumer confusion is further stoked by advertising done by entities regulated and operating in Ontario that are advertising nationally, outside the province, where they are not licensed to take bets. 

Hill and the CLC, which includes the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, British Columbia Lottery Corporation, Lotteries and Gaming Saskatchewan, and the Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation, are suggesting any nationwide framework should outline what is legal and what is not.

“After all, if a particular operator is not legally able to take wagers in a certain province, why should they be allowed to advertise there?” Hill said.

Another way?

Bill S-269 also proposes having the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) review its regulations and policies to see if they are adequate and effective “in reducing the incidence of harms resulting from the proliferation of advertising for sports betting.”

That could offer another avenue for changes to how sports betting advertising is done in Canada, as the CRTC has restricted the marketing of alcohol via television and radio. The CRTC’s code for alcohol ads, among other things, sets out that those commercials cannot try to entice non-drinkers to buy booze. 

One recommendation for sports betting ads from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CMHA), which is not opposed to a total ban either, was the federal government should set national rules either through legislation or regulation, as was done with alcohol and the CRTC. The CMHA wants a national framework for advertising gambling in general.

“All of this exposure to gambling promotion can be expected to cause harm,” said Jean-François Crépault, a senior policy analyst with the CMHA, during Wednesday’s meeting. “And, in fact in Ontario, there’s already been a rapid increase in the number of people seeking help for problems with sports betting specifically.”

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