Canadian senators ponder curbing sports betting ads

Bill S-269 was discussed at two committee meetings this week

Bill S-269, the National Framework on Advertising for Sports Betting Act, was the subject of two Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications meetings this week.

Stakeholders including Sen. Marty Deacon, the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Brent Cotter and representatives from Sport Canada, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the Canadian Lottery Coalition and other organizations discussed the subject of sports wagering advertising in Ontario.

Some lawmakers who voted for Bill C-218 when it was passed in parliament in 2021 expressed regret about that choice. That bill legalized single-event sports betting. Some senators noted that, while they don’t necessarily wish that box had stayed shut, they’re remorseful that the issue of advertising wasn’t addressed more deeply at the time.

“I wish we had considered at the time the flood of advertising that would go along with it,” said Deacon in introducing Tuesday’s meeting. She also described it as a “barrage,” noting that sports betting advertising is everywhere from TV broadcasts to pop-ups in mobile games to the equipment and uniforms of teams. “This could be a mere irritation for some if it weren’t so damaging.”

Now, three years on from Bill C-218’s passage, the conversation this week focused on how to rein in the advertising of online and mobile sports betting nationwide.

“We have the privilege of sober second thought,” said Deacon on Tuesday. “We have the opportunity to fix this.”

What does the legislation entail?

First introduced last summer, Bill S-269 would require the Minister of Canadian Heritage to develop a national framework for sports betting advertising based around what Deacon called “reasonable limits.” While provinces and territories have the right to regulate commercial gaming and betting themselves, the idea is that such a framework would formally increase collaboration by sharing information and setting general standards.

Bill S-269 would identify measures to regulate advertising, such as restricting the use of non-broadcast advertising or limiting its scope. The bill would also allow the federal government to consider limiting or banning the use of celebrities or athletes in a similar move to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario’s own measure in Ontario.

Even the AGCO rule changes, which prevented ads specifically targeting minors and only allowed athletes to advertise sportsbooks’ responsible gambling efforts, don’t go far enough in the eyes of some.

Deacon called the fact athletes can still promote sportsbooks via RG a “truck-size loophole.”

“This encourages gambling and associates them with the brand, which has been empirically proven to appeal to children,” she added in Tuesday’s meeting. “It has also done nothing to rein in the amount of ads Canadians are seeing nationwide, despite Ontario being the only province where you can legally bet with these companies.”

As well as restricting advertising via a federal framework, Bill S-269 would also focus on finding ways to prevent and help both minors and problem gamblers from being impacted by sports betting advertising.

“I feel like we’ve been too wrong for too long,” added Deacon.

What was discussed?

The sessions involved a variety of senators who voted on Bill c-218 in different ways. Some, such as Alberta Sen. Paula Simons voted “vehemently” against the single-sports betting bill in part because “I’m a cynical person who predicted that this such a thing would happen.”

Others, like Deacon herself, voted in favour of the bill three years ago, in large part because Canadians were already single-sport betting with grey-market operators. Bringing it under the province’s jurisdiction seemed the logical next step.

Quebec Sen. Leo Housakos, chair of the committee, said he voted for C-218 but is now “torn on if I was wise by doing so.”

A core focus of the discussions was the potential harm that gambling advertising can do if not further limited. Children and those with problem gambling or addictive tendencies being regularly exposed to betting adverts was particularly concerning for the senators and the speakers.

Former Olympian Bruce Kidd, a leading member of the Campaign to Ban Advertising for Gambling, said “the federal government must assume responsibility for this situation which they’ve created. The most effective strategy of public health harm reduction is to ban the ads.”

There’s also the issues of geography and legality.

Will Hill, the executive director of the Canadian Lottery Coalition, reiterated the coalition’s stance that advertising for sportsbooks that are only regulated in Canada in the Ontario market shouldn’t be broadcast outside of Ontario.

“Most of these operators advertise to and solicit Canadians outside of Ontario, where they have no legal authority to do so,” Hill said. He stressed that any regulatory framework that may result from this bill should delineate between what is legal (and where) and what is not.

Is a full ban a possibility?

Some public figures have advocated for a full ban on sports betting advertising, similar to the prohibitions in place for alcohol and tobacco in Ontario.

Saskatchewan Sen. Cotter noted that many people he speaks to about the issue implore the Senate to ban gambling advertising immediately. That kind of swift action is an unreasonable expectation, Cotter suggested, but the intention is that Bill S-269 can be “the anchor” that slows the pace.

Deacon suggested that tobacco is a good comparison for gaming when it comes to advertising.

“Given the demonstrated and severe harm caused by tobacco consumption, the promotion of tobacco products was considered to be a rational measure that would help to reduce this harm,” she noted. However, that only came after decades of court battles. “While we’d love to see a ban, we don’t see it upholding in the same way.”

Deacon admitted that a full ban on advertising would have been her choice but that there are “jurisdictional and charter issues that come into play here” that render that unfeasible.

“If the government wants to pursue a full ban, I and so many others would love that,” she added in the second session on Wednesday. “We just didn’t think this bill would survive a constitutional challenge if we sought a complete ban and didn’t want perfect to be the enemy of good.”

What comes next?

The bill was introduced in June 2023 and was last read in November. It would need to clear the Transport and Communications Committee and then receive another full vote in the Senate before it could pass the chamber and reach the House. Put bluntly, there’s a long way to go.

This week’s discussions also came at a time when Alberta is continuing to look to Ontario for inspiration for its own gaming market.

The Alberta legislature passed a bill late last month that validated the provincial government’s authority to conduct and manage gaming in the province, independent of Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis. That effectively cleared the legal path for the government to allow licensed third-party operators to offer gaming services and products alongside the AGLC’s PlayAlberta online sportsbook and casino, much like the Ontario set-up.

Dale Nally, minister of Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction and the politician tasked with reviewing Alberta’s gaming options, explicitly stated this week that he is “taking a look at the Ontario model and seeing how that would work in Alberta.”

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