The odds should be stacked against children gambling

Catch ’em young has always been a tried and trusted principle for many businesses. Grab a customer before they reach maturity and you grab them for life. Now, as a Sunday Times investigation today reveals, the gambling industry is using cartoon and other child-friendly images to attract the young to online betting sites.

The online gambling industry, which attracts stakes of nearly £18bn a year, is big business. While insisting that it is not targeting the young, it promotes games on its websites which feature the cartoon character Top Cat, Peter Pan and Jungle Book favourites. Online gambling games include Goldilocks and the Wild Bears, Moon Princess and Fortune Girl. Though many of these games are free, they provide a clear point of entry to the world of online gambling.

Indeed, many under-18s are thought already to be gambling, by simply ticking a box to say that they are 18 or over and borrowing a parent’s debit or credit card. As Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the international gaming research unit at Nottingham Trent University, argues, age verification checks need to be significantly more robust. “The irony is that our casinos and our bookmakers are among the most strictly regulated companies in the whole country, but online it all goes out of the window,” he said.

Our investigation has exposed a significant loophole. The Gambling Commission, the regulator, has rules that ban under-18s from bookmakers and casinos and prevent them from providing “facilities for gambling in such a way as to appeal particularly to children”. Though under-18s are officially barred from online gambling, such restrictions on deliberately appealing to children do not apply.

Until contacted by this newspaper, the Gambling Commission appeared unaware of the extent to which the industry it is charged with regulating was targeting children.

It is now reviewing whether its rules on appealing to children should apply to online games and has passed on material, provided by The Sunday Times, to the Advertising Standards Authority.

It is not before time. The Labour Party says the ban should be extended. Lord Sugar, who has campaigned against gambling advertising, says a “soft” regulator is allowing a gambling culture to be created among the young.

The regulator needs to show its teeth and put an immediate end to this practice. We hope we can bet on it doing so.