Some of Britain’s biggest gambling operators are targeting children with their favourite cartoon and storybook characters in online betting games, an investigation by The Sunday Times reveals today.
Operators are exploiting a loophole in the rules that allows them to promote games that appeal to children without breaching Gambling Commission rules. Stakes on the games range from 1p to £600.
The games — many of which can be played for free without registration or any age-verification checks — include Peter Pan on the Paddy Power website; Jack and the Beanstalk on the 888 website with a minimum bet of 20p and maximum bet of £200; and Moon Princess on the Casinoland website with a minimum stake of 20p and maximum stake of £100.
The Gambling Commission said this weekend it was concerned about children being lured into online betting and was reviewing the rules on gambling products that may appeal to children.
The industry denies deliberately targeting children, but material from a Sunday Times dossier with examples of more than 30 games has been passed by the commission to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for investigation.
Lord Sugar, who has called for greater restrictions on gambling advertising, said the regulator needed to take more effective action. He said: “This is absolutely wrong and the regulator needs to step in. They have been too soft. We are creating a gambling culture particularly among the young.”
Tom Watson, the shadow culture secretary, said: “This loophole is ruthlessly exploited by irresponsible bookies and it’s one that urgently needs closing.
“The Gambling Commission should act now to extend the current ban on targeting games at children to online products. Betting companies need to acknowledge the harm they are doing by cynically targeting children online and remove these games, many of which can be played for ‘fun’ and without age verification, from their sites.”
Online casino and slots gaming is one of the fastest-growing forms of gambling and Britons spent about £34,000 a minute on these games in 2015-16. About one in 10 who gamble online on virtual slot machines, casino games or bingo are problem gamblers.
The Gambling Commission has found about 450,000 children are gambling in England and Wales every week. Its report published in November last year found that 6% of 11 to 15-year-olds have gambled online using parents’ accounts and 3% have spent their own money on online gambling. Free games on gambling websites were among the products some children played.
Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the international gaming research unit at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Research has shown that when we look at those children who are problem gamblers, the No 1 risk factor is playing games for online for free. Children are getting access via their mobile phone to these games in a much easier way than even five years ago.”
There are also no regulated limits on stakes and payouts for online gambling game, compared with fixed-odds betting terminals in betting shops — the controversial machines described as the “crack cocaine” of gambling that are under review by the government — where bets are limited to £100 and payouts to £500.
The game Fluffy Too Mega Jackpot, which can be played on the 888 site Arcade Spins, advertises a jackpot of more than £90,000. Betting stakes are between 1p and £50. The William Hill game Frozen Fruits has a maximum betting stake of £600.
Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, which represents online operators, including William Hill and 888, said age-verification tests were successful and prevented the vast majority of children from gambling.
He said in cases where children gambled money after an initial registration, it would be returned once more detailed age-verification checks had been completed.
Hawkswood said he would support a change in the Gambling Commission code to clarify that online gambling games should not be of particular appeal to children.
He said the gambling industry was not deliberately targeting youngsters and was working hard to reduce problem gambling.
However, he added that there was a risk of designing fun games for adults that might inadvertently attract children and it was an important matter for
The ASA already advises companies to ensure their marketing material does not unwittingly target the wrong age groups.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “We have been clear that the industry must do more in terms of social responsibility and this is an issue we are addressing in our ongoing gambling review to be published soon.
“There are strict controls in place to prevent children and young people from accessing online gambling.”