In a double quandary that may have delighted two of the country’s most famous sons, surrealist artist René Magritte and the great detective writer Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, the Belgian betting industry is busy pondering the vexed issue of gambling and asking: “When does a back door become a front door?” And, “What turns a newsagent’s into a betting shop?”
These are simple, not trick, questions posed in the heart of Europe that quite possibly will have profound ramifications across the continent, and most probably in Great Britain, as Belgian authorities consider imposing a blanket ban on betting advertising.
The country, population 11.58 million people, may be small and relatively inconsequential, from a market perspective, but it’s home to the European Union’s powerful bureaucratic machine and is often the catalyst for issues of burning political and economic importance.
It could even be argued: Today Belgium, tomorrow the world.
The Belgian government has just announced plans to introduce a blanket ban on all forms of gambling advertising in the country.
The proposed legislation is aimed at games of chance across all of Belgium’s online and retail facilities — with the exception of the country’s National Lottery.
British betting operators and platforms, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the, now long-delayed, Review of the 2005 Gambling Act, have taken special note.
This is tightening the grip in a way that may throttle the very life out of the legal gaming industry in naïve, unintended, favour of the unregulated off-shore market.
BAGO, the Belgian Association of Gaming Operators, is highly critical of the move.
Driving Action to the Bad Side
They argue that such strictures will make it more difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal operators and drive action to the bad side.
Referencing a recent survey by the University of Ghent, BAGO pointed out that already one-in-three operators who currently advertise on social media in Belgium are not licensed and are therefore operating illegally.
Furthermore, the proposed ban would not apply to the National Lottery, which accounts for some 40 per cent of all gambling ads in the country.
“No game of chance is without risk,” argues BAGO, while stressing: “Scratch games carry a risk similar to that of sports betting.
“One therefore wonder[s] whether the government is really taking a decision here in which concern for the consumer is central.”
BAGO was the first national gambling operators’ association to sign up to the European Gaming and Betting Association’s (EGBA) comprehensive Code of Conduct on Responsible Advertising, published at the end of April, 2020.
It has since been joined by Denmark’s DOGA, APAJO in Portugal, Norway’s NBO and the Speel Verantwoord in The Netherlands; while the code has also been endorsed by mega operators Bet365, Betsson Group, Entain, Kindred and William Hill, among others.
At the time EGBA Secretary General Maarten Haijer said: “We welcome BAGO’s endorsement of our code, and their commitment to promoting responsible advertising.
“We encourage other associations and companies to sign up to the code and play their part in promoting more responsible advertising across Europe’s online gambling sector.”
EGBA’s code is perhaps the most progressive and comprehensive guidance available to online operators.
Advertising must not target minors, players should be reminded of the importance of staying in control of their gambling behaviour, betting advertising should not be excessive, responsible gaming is paramount, content must be moderated, paid marketing on social media or by influencers should be clearly labelled as such.
These are all key components of EGBA’s fair betting code.
BAGO President Tom De Clercq sees cutting-edge software as an important part of the Responsible Gaming solution.
AI and Algorithms
“Today, more and more legal operators are deploying algorithms and artificial intelligence to quickly identify emerging problematic gambling behaviour and offer solutions to players, including advising them to register on the EPIS [self-exclusion] list,” he said.
“If we want to fight gambling addiction effectively, this is the way to go.”
Meantime–following the acquisition of 170 retail newspaper stores from bpost, the country’s national post office, by a gambling company called Golden Palace–the very definition of what constitutes a betting shop in Belgium is up for grabs.
Anti-gaming activists are concerned that the sale may encourage “gambling” through the proverbial “back-door”.
So the government, in surreal and strict explanation, has now mandated that a newsagent’s must display at least 200 different publications and generate at least €25,000 per year from these titles (£21,246/€26,647).
They can only accept bets between the hours of 6am and 8pm, while total bets in each retail outlet must not exceed €250,000 a year (£212,461/US$266,477).
Each shop should not feature more than three sq. metres of advertising space dedicated to betting in total, both inside and outside the premises. No more than one-fifth of the total retail space should be set aside for betting.
“Gambling addiction is a public health problem that requires special attention,” said one government official.
“I hope this element will be weighed in the sale of the newsagents of bpost to a gambling company that wants to generate additional sales channels.
“If you allow a back door to open, eventually it becomes a front door.”
It’s a picture that Magritte would love to paint. And a puzzle that Maigret would love to solve.