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Celebrity gambling ads in Ontario banned by AGCO

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The litany of televised and online gambling ads featuring celebrities is soon coming to an end in Ontario following a decision Tuesday by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).

The provincial regulator has updated its “Standards for Internet Gaming” to prohibit the use of athletes in internet gaming (iGaming) advertising and marketing in Ontario. The standards have also been strengthened to restrict the use of celebrities who would likely appeal to minors.

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The new restrictions will come into effect on February 28, 2024, according to AGCO which says it plans to issue additional guidance in the coming weeks.

“Children and youth are heavily influenced by the athletes and celebrities they look up to,” said Tom Mungham, the AGCO’s CEO in a statement. “We’re therefore increasing measures to protect Ontario’s youth by disallowing the use of these influential figures to promote online betting in Ontario.”

The decision was described as a “welcome first step” by four members of Ontario’s NDP, including local MPP Lisa Gretzky (Windsor-West), following their private members bill introduced in June. Their proposed legislation goes a step further and calls for an outright ban on all iGaming advertisements.

“It has been tabled for first reading,” said Gretzky, the NDP’s critic for Mental Health and Addictions. “After this decision by AGCO we hope the government sees the urgency and calls it for second reading and it gets passed quickly to committee. That’s the goal.”

Any MPP at Queen’s Park from any party can adopt the NDP private members bill and request to bring it forward depending on their order on the list.

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Since iGaming was rolled out by the government over a year ago, the proliferation of advertising often featuring athletes and celebrities promoting various online gambling sites has become “the wild west,” Gretzky said.

“All of a sudden you see this explosion of ads on tv, radio — and in Toronto they are on the bus shelters and billboards everywhere advertising these iGaming sites,” she said.

“There are a lot of people susceptible to addiction — especially younger adults who then get in over their heads with gambling debts. We have seen an increase in suicide because many feel their is no other way out.”

It’s not just the NDP members pushing for a complete ban on online gambling sites advertising in Ontario, but several mental health agencies and problem gambling help agencies across Ontario are pushing for the same, Gretzky said.

“In the U.K. they are working towards an outright ban on advertising, as well,” she said.

Perhaps ironically, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky — cousin to the Windsor MPP’s husband — is among those who have appeared in ads for gambling sites. Others include track star Andre DeGrasse and current NHL players Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.

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“That has been his personal choice,” said the local MPP of Wayne Gretzky. “It’s a personal decision every athlete or celebrity makes. It’s not anything personal for me because I know the research on mental health and addictions shows having sports figures actively advertising these sites is problematic. We need a complete ban of advertising of these iGaming sites.”

In April, AGCO held consultations on its proposal to ban such ads and received submissions from stakeholders including mental health and public health organizations, responsible gambling experts, gaming operators, broadcast and marketing groups, along with the public.

Following consultations, the AGCO says it determined prohibiting the use of athletes and restricting celebrity endorsements would help safeguard children and youth who can be particularly susceptible to such advertising content.

The amended standards will prohibit registered Ontario igaming operators from using athletes, whether active or retired, in igaming marketing and advertising, except for the purpose of advocating for responsible gambling practices.

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The amended standards also restrict the use of celebrities, role models, social media influencers, entertainers, cartoon figures, and symbols that “would likely be expected to appeal to minors.”

Gretzky expressed disappointment the ban will not go into effect until February.

“That’s the first thing that crossed my mind,” she said. “(AGCO) might be thinking they need to be fair to these iGaming companies in terms of contracts with sports figures or celebrities and potential liabilities.

“But there is a real risk you will see more gambling addiction, especially with children and youth continuing to be barraged by these ads until February of next year.”

dbattagello@postmedia.com

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