Although in Latvia gambling advertising outside game halls has been banned for 17 years, it is freely visible and audible on different home and foreign websites, as well as on television channels registered outside Latvia.
“But it also shows that they [gambling operators] have lost customers in previous periods,” said Elīna Brila, a psychologist for the Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Inspection.
In the last three years, since the register of self-withdrawn persons was introduced, more than 46,000 people have been registered at least once. Mostly, people include themselves in the register for a minimum term of one year. Then they are automatically deleted from the register. There are currently more than 28,000 people on the register.
In terms of advertising, the psychologist Brila is convinced that advertising seen on television or the Internet environment can encourage an addicted person to resume gambling: “If I talk about the customer and addiction, this addictive behavior, the dysfunction in the brain [..] I've had cases in practice where the client has withdrawn for a long time. He doesn't really play, lives a quality life, goes abroad, turns on the television in the hotel room and sees a gambling ad that isn't banned there. Yes, and he's encouraged to play, and he says, I don't know what happened, I've not played for so long, I saw the ad, and I just went playing and everything. It shows how easily encouraged they are. The addiction is waiting. Even if you don't play for a while or don't drink for a while, maybe even for many years,” she said.
The representative of the Latvian Interactive Gambling Society, Kaspars Rāzna, said that Latvia is one of the few countries with a complete ban on advertising.
“A total ban on advertising is rare, but Latvia is one of them [countries]. Accordingly, other national media will accept such ads. Further, of course, if there are not Latvian operators, the place will be filled to some extent by licensed operators in other places. Well, let's call them illegal operators,” said Rāzna, adding that those are gambling operators that do not have a license registered in Latvia.
However, according to Latvian Radio, advertisements for gambling operators licensed in Latvia are also visible on the Internet and on television.
“As we are not allowed to advertise in Latvian media, it is clear that new operators are looking for opportunities, because how else will people find out about them? There are other national media, [..] and the gray market. There are a number of people playing with unlicensed operators, fortunately, this proportion has fallen, but let us assume that there are no longer any Latvian operators and only unlicensed operators are advertising on an Internet site. What's going to happen? We'll see the shadow section grow slowly again,” Rāzna said.
In a written comment by the Latvian Interactive Gambling Society, it stressed that, from the point of view of consumer rights and protection, an absolute restriction on gambling advertising actually makes the gambling environment more unsafe, because licensed operators providing secure services cannot tell about their products in contrast to illegal sites that do not operate any responsible game tools, including the self-withdrawn register, but their advertisements reach Latvian consumers.
Rāzna explained: “In our view, there could be the Estonian model where the trademark can be displayed in a very limited place and time. Then it wouldn't be a situation that some channels that are “out there” available would be loaded with advertising.”
The Latvian Interactive Gambling Society also expressed that the current gambling advertising ban does not apply to the State capital company Latvijas Loto, which owns exclusive rights to organize lotteries, draws, and interactive lotteries. This is unfair in the industry's view. In the meantime, the Ministry of Finance explains that Latvijas Loto does not qualify as a gambling organizer.
Meanwhile the Latvian Advertising Association says the current gambling advertising ban is only formal and, in reality, game operators have access to advertising. 17 years ago, when the ban came into force, it worked, but as the Internet develops, control opportunities are declining.
Head of the association Baiba Liepiņa said: “These advertising networks are technologically built so that we're all connected and the ad appears on each user's final screen, either on a computer or on the phone. Can it be prevented? I think not. Latvian media cannot accept gambling advertising, the law prohibits it, but Latvian residents are also reached by this advertisement. We started to study how this was going, and we realized that these foreign networks could be used easily and there were a lot of them. It's actually hard to track the source of advertising and paying.”
Liepiņa is convinced that the restriction of gambling advertising should be reviewed because it is circumvented.
Also, Signe Birne, the head of the Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Inspection, acknowledged that the gambling advertising ban is not working in reality. In her opinion, it would be time to review it, but in the working groups, every issue affecting the gambling field is like a hot potato, and it is difficult for the responsible ministries to make decisions.
Birne said: “Those who can influence this view in the working group, including the Ministry of Welfare, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Justice, are still left with the fact that gambling advertising is far from being banned. Already in 2014 the European Commission had adopted a recommendation on consumer, particularly player protection measures, including gambling advertising and other attraction measures."
And these recommendations state that any merchant engaged in a legal business cannot be banned from advertising. This also applies to the gambling industry.
“The ad has to be there, but with certain limits. To whom this ad is broadcast, the time it is broadcast, in which broadcasts it can be seen. What can be advertised at all. For example, you can't say if you gamble you won't have to go to work. I'm exaggerating, but that's the principle. Any total ban does not address anything and always merchants or any natural person will seek to bypass it.”
Another stumbling block is monitoring the ban on gambling advertising. Currently, the Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Inspection has its hands tied from the point of view of the law and does not have the right to punish for violations of the advertising ban.
The monitoring function shall be performed by the Consumer RIghts Protection Center (PTAC). Its chief executive, Baiba Vītoliņa, acknowledged that monitoring gambling advertising infringements is not a priority for the center.
The PTAC is waiting for the new gambling law guidelines to move this obligation under the auspices of the Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Inspection. This is planned to take place this summer.