Billboards, social media, televised sports – no matter where you look, the onslaught of online sports betting ads has become inescapable.
Given the green light by the federal government in August 2021 via Bill C-218, each province can now decide whether it wants to allow sports wagering and in what forms. Ontario was the first province to establish a commercially competitive online market (iGaming Ontario) in April 2022, with many others following suit. Governments’ primary goal has long been to increase revenue lost to illegal and offshore gambling websites (more than $14 billion annually), a goal that has not been met in several American states that have enacted similar policies.
Thus, the fundamental question becomes: Is it worth exposing an exponentially greater proportion of the population, who are especially vulnerable, to the significant harms of gambling in order to increase government revenue?
The harms of problem gambling are well-known, ranging from the erosion of one’s life savings and filing for bankruptcy to interpersonal conflicts, neglect of relationships with loved ones and worsening mental health, including the development of severe anxiety and mood disorders, increased consumption of alcohol and illegal substances, loneliness and suicidality.
The emerging public health and social crisis that comes with legalized online sports betting is substantially different from other forms of gambling. For one, it targets a specific demographic of vulnerable Canadians: young men. Young men tend to gamble more frequently due in part to increased risk-taking behaviour, yet do not have much money to begin with. Furthermore, concomitant drug and alcohol use during sports matches further impairs judgment (in one study, 64 per cent of young men stated they had bet on sports while drinking).
The problem may be far more widespread than previously thought.
Indeed, the problem may be far more widespread than previously thought. According to Statistics Canada, which assesses problem gambling and its consequences through the Canadian Community Health Survey, “nearly two-thirds (64.5 per cent) of Canadians aged 15 or older (18.9 million individuals) reported gambling in the past year, and 1.6 per cent of past-year gamblers (304,400 individuals) were at a moderate-to-severe risk of problems related to gambling.”
The modern gambling landscape is also vastly different from that of previous generations. For one, the proliferation of social media allows for tailored advertisements to users. One-tap access to betting via mobile applications has made placing a wager easier than ever, while digital modes of payment have made losses feel dull and less noticeable. Compared to purchasing lottery tickets, gambling at casinos, or betting on horse racing, electronic gambling and online sports betting have become optimized to be faster paced, more intense and appealing, all the while involving more frequent betting, more frequent playing, longer playing time, and endless incentives to spend more money.
Online gambling companies have designed these games to be as addictive as possible, using highly effective schemes that are based on well-established psychological principles. For example, many apps now offer “risk-free” bets after a string of losses, with the player being able to recoup losses only if that money is spent on another bet in-game. These types of wager inducements are pervasive, backed by complex computer algorithms that target people prone to problem gambling, keeping them online even after they have lost most of their money. A proliferation of in-game prop bets on a variety of outcomes – everything from the length of a match to how many shots a star player will take – serve to keep bettors hooked on the action.
Gambling lobbyists often mention that “most people who gamble do so without significant harm, with only a minority of individuals adversely affected.” While this appears to be true at first glance, when we multiply the number of people who gamble, the frequency at which they participate and the amount of their wagers, the usual minority that would be adversely affected by addiction and financial losses grows dramatically and society will end up with a mounting public health crisis, one for which governments, contrary to what they have claimed, have no remedial plan.
Acknowledging this fact, Canada’s provincial governments have both a moral and medical obligation to prevent people from falling through the cracks and succumbing to problem gambling. It is far too easy to simply ask vulnerable people to “gamble responsibly” and leave them to suffer, seemingly analogous to removing highway speed limits and allowing intoxicated driving, then asking people to “drive safely.” Frankly, current government policy on online sports betting is nothing more than a textbook example of a cop out.
With an already underfunded mental-health system, bolstering mental-health supports in the community, strict regulation of current companies, and pausing further iGaming expansion are just a few of the necessary policies that governments must now enact to reign in this growing problem. Failing to do so will bring about severe, unintended consequences for years to come.