Europe

Spain’s new gambling restrictions: Will they work?

Problem gambling is an issue that affects people all over the world, with an increase in leisure time during the Covid-19 pandemic thought to contribute to a rise in cases — but Spain is a country that has it under control. At least that’s the view of Mikal Arana, director general of the country’s gambling regulator, DGOJ, who recently said that betting is not a public health issue

Yet new proposals from his own organization seem to contradict that. A new DGOJ public directive sets out the most dramatic reforms to the country’s gambling regulation in years, with mandatory self-imposed limits for players and a ban on credit card use for ‘intensive players’. 

While many sectors have welcomed the increased awareness about the problem, there are still question marks over just how effective the changes will be.

The DGOJ proposals

Spain has a record of applying regulatory changes quickly. The national government imposed advertising controls in sports and iGaming in a matter of weeks at the start of the pandemic, and the latest DGOJ measures are set to follow a similar path. 

The proposed changes, announced in July, are based on two central details: time and net spend limits set by the player and targeting so-called ‘intensive players’. 

Self-imposed time and net spend limits

Spanish players will have to enter maximum time and net spend limits every time they begin a session of play, and only they will decide how high these amounts will be. If they reach these thresholds, then the session will automatically finish, they won’t be able to modify the limits for another 24 hours, and they’ll get the chance to restrict access to future sessions.

Warning messages and play summaries will accompany these limits. These are designed to keep the player fully aware of their activity and will take shape as follows:

  • A warning message if the player starts gambling within one hour of the end of the previous session.
  • A notification every 30 minutes with data about their gambling activity, such as amount staked and net loss.
  • A monthly play summary with betting activity data. 

There’ll also be a restriction on in-game pop-ups that are designed to encourage further betting. For example, if a player narrowly misses out on a win, then a game might send them a sympathetic note saying something like ‘Close! Better luck next time’. The DGOJ believes these contribute to problematic behavior and will clamp down on their usage.

Targeting young and ‘intensive’ players

Problem gambling is a complex issue and studies show that it can appear in many aspects of a person’s daily activity. The DGOJ believes it can get to the source of the problem by identifying ‘intensive’ players with their limits system. 

To summarize, these will be players who use up 50% or more of their daily or weekly personal limits in three consecutive periods. They will receive warning messages and reports, as outlined above, and will be banned from using credit cards.

However, perhaps DGOJ’s most controversial move will be adjusting this category for players under the age of 25. Their play will reach ‘intensive’ levels if they play for 25% of the maximum time in just two consecutive sessions. Again, these players won’t be able to use their credit cards if this happens. 

The DGOJ will record all the activity on a new national register, demonstrating a more co-ordinated approach to the 17 separate local databases currently in operation. 

The plus side

Spanish anti-gambling campaigners will welcome stricter measures in a national gambling industry that grew by 13.7% in 2020. At the very least, the frequent alerts and reports will increase player self-awareness: one of the big dangers of betting is the player forgetting how long they’ve played for and how much money they’ve spent, and the DGOJ’s messages will make this clear.

Limiting credit card use among frequent players is also positive. Playing with borrowed money is the easiest way to build gambling debt: it causes players to spend more than they can afford and leads to crippling interest payments if left unpaid, adding to their misery. The UK completely banned credit cards last year following expert advice, and more countries could follow suit. 

Logic says that players who are aware of their behavior and are subject to strict restrictions will gamble less and suffer fewer betting-related problems, but reality doesn’t always agree.

Criticism

DGOJ’s measures are likely to receive criticism, too. Firstly, if the betting limits are up to the player, they could simply set them extremely high so as to avoid the ‘intensive player’ restrictions. There is nothing stopping a problem gambler maxing out their credit card if they so choose.

Young players might also feel unfairly targeted. Setting an arbitrary age of 25 is problematic: is a 26-year-old automatically more responsible than a 24-year-old? How does this fit with studies that show that gambling frequency peaks by the age of 30? Treating someone differently according to their age is always a difficult line to tread. 

There’s also the potential issue of the restrictions pushing Spanish players towards foreign and/or unlicensed casinos. Players taking their money offshore means a drop in revenue for the domestic industry, while unlicensed casinos endanger user safety as they’re not obliged to follow consumer protection guidelines. 

On a less important level, there’s also an argument that frequent notifications will impact how Spanish players enjoy a game. All users will receive more messages, meaning that even moderate players will have their gaming experience disrupted. The DGOJ, however, seem to think that this is a price worth paying for a safer gambling industry.

The effect on the Spanish gambling industry

The consequences of DGOJ’s reforms could be a mixed bag for Spain’s betting industry. 

The UK government’s clampdown on casino betting and credit card use was swiftly followed by a £500 million drop in share prices among several of the nation’s biggest operators, something that would alarm not just the DGOJ but the Spanish government, too, if it happened in Spain.

Also, the positive effects of betting controls are watered down by the fact that players themselves will still dictate how much they spend when betting online. 

However, many will see the DGOJ’s campaign to fight problem gambling, including the advertising controls in sports betting, to be a necessary step in a country where gambling use rose significantly during the pandemic.

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