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Calls grow for gambling ad ban on London transport network

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London mayor Sadiq Khan is facing increasing calls to deliver on promises to ban “harmful gambling advertisements” on Transport for London, following growing concerns over the prevalence of problem gambling in the UK.

Khan made the pledge during his election campaign in April 2021, as online and mobile app gambling services were accused of using aggressive marketing strategies to lure customers.

In his manifesto, Khan said: “Given the devastating way gambling addiction can destroy lives and families, I’ll instruct TfL to bring forward plans to extend the ban to harmful gambling advertisements on the network.”

Experts and politicians speaking at a committee meeting of the London Assembly on Wednesday called for Khan to make good on his promise, as well as widen the crackdown. Harj Gahley, an adviser at Red Card, a gambling support charity, said the mayor should “ban any advertisements linked to gambling”.

“It seems to be a Wild West with betting operators,” he said. “One of [the solutions] is stopping it on TfL.”

Khan’s manifesto aimed to bar advertisements deemed “harmful”, rather than impose a blanket ban, although it remains unclear how the term would be defined.

Assembly politicians pressed Dr Tom Coffey, Khan’s senior adviser on health policy, on why the mayor had not yet followed through on the pledge.

Caroline Russell, the leader of the Green Party in the assembly, said that Khan’s administration is “dancing on the head of a pin” about what constituted “harmful” gambling.

Coffey said the London authority had asked the government to develop a precise definition of harmful gambling. Without one, he said, the mayor’s office risked legal challenges and unfairly penalising potentially less harmful forms of gambling such as the National Lottery and betting on the Grand National horse race.

“There are many people in the UK who gamble, and for the majority, it’s a form of social engagement and participation which they enjoy,” he said.

A ban would be the latest action to limit marketing of products and services deemed to cause social harm on London’s transport network. Advertisements for foods high in fat, salt and sugar and those promoting “unrealistic body images” were banned in 2019 and 2016 respectively.

According to a survey from the Gambling Commission, since 2018, increasing numbers had taken part in online gambling in the four weeks before the survey, rising from 18.5 to 26.9 per cent between 2018 and 2022.

Last year there was also a “significant increase” in the number of people at moderate risk of adverse consequences from gambling, rising to 1.3 per cent from 0.8 per cent in the previous year.

Online and smartphone apps have made it easier for people to sign up to gambling services, particularly younger gamblers influenced by celebrity marketing on social media. Companies have also come under fire for their use of tracking and ad targeting.

Although data from the Gambling Commission shows that in-person gambling has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, local authorities have expressed frustration at their lack of power to limit the operations of high street betting shops in deprived areas.

Councils can apply to prevent shops opening by proving they could cause people to be harmed or a source of crime and disorder.

Will Maimaris, director of public health at Haringey Council’s public health team, told the committee: “We would actually like to go further and attach harm on to existing gambling premises when they come to renew licences.”

Following publication of a gambling white paper in April, the government opened a consultation into setting a 1 per cent fee on gross gambling yield for online operators, and a 0.4 per cent fee on traditional betting shops and casinos. Although it does not seek to ban advertising, it set out proposals to rein in incentives, including free bets and direct marketing.

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