Ban gambling ads, CMHA urges Alcohol and Gaming Commission

Ontario hockey fans are seeing more of Wayne Gretzky these days than during his 1980s and ’90s heyday, thanks to a non-stop barrage of online gambling ads running during the Stanley Cup playoffs—including the Great One’s ubiquitous BetMGM ad with fellow Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.

But the sheer number of gambling ads has sparked concern among mental health groups, with the Ontario division of the Canadian Mental Health Association this week calling for an outright ban.

“We strongly urge you to prohibit all advertising for igaming due to the detrimental impact it has on youth, vulnerable individuals and their families,” wrote Camille Quenneville, CEO of the CMHA’s Ontario division, in a four page letter to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario following a request for feedback. Youth and young adults are particularly vulnerable to “at-risk gambling” following their exposure to the ads, she said.

“Gambling-related harms such as financial loss, mental health issues, substance use, and suicide ideation, can have devastating and long lasting impact on the individual and their family,” she wrote, noting that the CMHA is seeing an “alarming increase” in online gambling among students in Grades seven to 12.

While Quenneville said the Alcohol and Gaming Commission’s recent proposed ban on the use of celebrities and athletes in gambling ads is “helpful,” she recommended broader restrictions until there is a total ban—including prohibiting advertising using “cartoon figures, symbols, role models, social media influencers, celebrities or entertainers” and advertising that depicts gambling as as a purely recreational activity “without harms such as the potential for significant financial loss.”

The letter also urges the provincial gambling authority to consider restricting gambling advertising to hours of the day when the likelihood of children being exposed to the ads is “minimal,” and called for responsible gambling ads to be shown on a scale similar to gambling ads. These ads, she said, should be “similar in speed, tone and volume, print size, and colour intensity and contrast.”

Quenneville went on to cite the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s 2021 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, which highlights a “concerning trend” of increased gambling among young people, with the percentage of students self-reporting betting money on online gambling increasing from 4% in 2019 to 15% in 2021.

And the prevalence of gambling ads during the NHL playoffs has not gone unnoticed by the public, especially with betting companies also sponsoring editorial segments featuring on-air talent like Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean and Cabbie Richards. That led to complaints to the CBC, which responded that it had no control over the editorial content of the telecasts, which are led by Rogers-owned Sportsnet.

But the sheer amount of gambling ads has also caused consternation. According to a recent report, game two of the second-round series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers featured nearly eight-and-a-half minutes of sports gambling advertising.

“The number of gambling advertisements on any televised sporting event today is dismaying and harmful,” said a new advocacy group called Ban Ads for Gambling, which is calling for a complete ban on gambling ads.

Several public figures, including Karl Subban, an educator and father of famed former NHLer P.K., as well as children’s entertainer Raffi, Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, have all lent their support to the organization.

“It won’t be easy, given the financial muscle of the gaming and sports industries, now firmly in partnership over sports betting, as well as the media which gets revenue from the ads, but we think the public interest is overwhelmingly in favour of doing something about the ads, and that gambling ads should be banned just as tobacco and cannabis ads are,” says the organization’s website.

Canada lifted a ban on single-game sports wagering in 2021, with “Open for business” Ontario becoming the first province to permit third-party online gambling companies on April 4, 2022. Today, there are 30 companies offering online gambling in the province.

And it has been a highly lucrative business. According to a recent report from iGaming Ontario, the online gambling market attracted “about $35.6 billion in total wagers and approximately $1.4 billion in total gaming revenue” during its first year, making it one of the top five igaming jurisdictions in North America.

“Today’s numbers demonstrate that Ontario has one of the best online gaming markets in the world,” said iGaming Ontario chair Dave Forestell in a release. “Since Ontario opened the market we have seen new investment, job creation, and captured revenue that used to leave the province. Ontario is well on its way to becoming the best gaming jurisdiction in the world.”

Chris Powell