Warning: This article contains references to addiction and suicide.
Like many parents, Liz Ritchie put an ornament on the family Christmas tree for each of her children. As she hung her son Jack from a branch, it occurred to her that he would not be home for the holidays.
Not this year, not next year, never.
Feeling helpless at the age of 24 due to a gambling addiction that stole his sense of purpose and life, Jack committed suicide.
Sitting at his home in Sheffield, England, Richie had a clear message: “I want to warn Canadians, I want to talk to mothers across the ocean. You need to worry about your children, it’s not okay, some of your children will die .”
the rise of advertising
If you’ve turned on your TV to watch live sports in Canada in recent months, you may have noticed a different game being promoted on the screen. Canada’s Saturday Night Hockey has added no fewer than 19 sports betting ads in advance.
Whether you’re watching hockey, basketball, or any other sport on television in this country, you currently can’t escape the onslaught of gambling commercials that run time and time again during prime-time, while children of all ages and Canadians watch their most Favorite teams travel from coast to coast.
Years ago, Richie saw the rise of similar sports betting ads in the UK, but she didn’t realize at the time how it would affect her son.
“They warn you about sexual predators, drugs and alcohol, but the government never says anything about gambling,” she told CTV News.
TSN, the sports broadcaster owned by CTV parent Bell Media, is now producing and airing its own gambling shows on TV, radio and online.
Rogers’ Sportsnet is also creating and producing its own multi-platform sports betting content featuring some of the biggest names in on-air talent.
Ontario is the first Canadian province to fully regulate the country’s first online gaming market. People of any age can now legally bet on any aspect of the game or online slot machines with the flick of a finger on their phone. As other provinces consider their own legislation, all eyes are on Ontario.
Paul Burns, chief executive of sports betting and gaming lobby group the Canadian Gaming Association, has argued that regulated online gambling has been safer than other options over the past few years.
“Canadians are playing the game without control, without supervision, without protection. That’s what it’s done, and that’s the biggest change in the past 12 months,” Burns said.
Currently in Ontario, there are 68 online gambling sites regulated by the province.
Lobbyists like Burns say that “advertising is part of having a regulated gaming market,” although he acknowledges that “there is a shared responsibility between broadcasters, sports leagues, and sports betting operators to know what’s right. (gambling promotions) combine their product for their customers and the league’s reputation.”
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which regulates online gambling in the province, sent an email to CTV National News stating that “marketing and advertising standards” are in place “to help protect vulnerable and high-risk players from gambling. lure”
AGCO also “had discussions with Canadian advertising industry leaders” about “the role they can play in regulating advertising placed on regulated and unregulated Internet gaming sites.”
“A public health disaster waiting to happen”
But in Britain, where gambling legislation expanded rapidly in 2005, some anti-gambling advocates are speaking out.
They argue that the tragic lessons learned in their country should serve as cautionary tales for Canadians.
“This is an impending public health disaster,” Rich said.
Photo of Jack Ridge provided by his family.
Public Health England has found that there are more than 400 gambling-related suicides in the country each year. In 2019, the NHS in England opened the first of 16 planned child gambling addiction clinics.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, who runs a UK-based nonprofit called Clean Up Gambling, said young people were particularly at risk.
“Between the ages of 18 and 24, before your brain is fully developed, you’re prone to problem gambling. The fact that younger people are more likely to gamble because of advertising, I think that’s one reason to limit it,” he said .
Zarb-Cousin added that the UK bookmakers’ promotion “convinced young people that they had to wager to enjoy the game, and when they reached the age of 18, the first thing they did was download all the gambling apps.”
Increased reports from parents
CTV National News spoke with a recovering gambling addict who asked us not to reveal his name or identity. For the purposes of this story, he was asked to be called Al.
Al, who now volunteers with Gamblers Anonymous in Ontario, is also concerned about the possible impact of sports betting advertising.
“Imagine a 12- or 14-year-old kid watching hockey or basketball or any sport — how tempting it would be to have that on their phone.”
In an email, Sportsnet told CTV News: “We recognize that sports betting content and advertising represent a shift in audience, and we are very careful about the amount and content of commercial inventory allocated to our sports betting partners to ensure we continue to deliver A premium viewing experience.”
According to Al, broadcasters, sports leagues, and AGCO were not careful enough. Al shared that Ontario has seen a surge in recent months in the number of parents calling Gamblers Anonymous for help because they fear their child may be addicted to gambling.
“A lot of parents think their kids are upstairs doing their homework, but they’ve got $30 to $40 on their credit cards,” Al said.
Athletes’ involvement has been criticized
Some fans have spoken out against their favorite stars appearing in some commercials.
From Connor McDavid to Auston Matthews to Wayne Gretzky, some of the biggest names in hockey have signed and paid handsomely . The NHL’s Washington Capitals strike a deal to have “Caesars Sportsbook” emblazoned on their jerseys. Sports broadcaster TSN has even teamed up with FanDuel as its official sports betting partner.
TSN said in a statement that FanDuel “has a number of features to reduce risk for bettors, including tools to help customers set deposits, wagers and time limits.”
But people like Ayer who have gambled for decades say they think a fully open online gaming market could spell trouble for Ontarians and residents of other provinces if they abide by similar regulations.
The AI waved his phone in the air, emphasizing how easy these apps and companies make placing bets.
“It’s always in our hands. If it’s snowing or raining, you don’t have to drive to the casino or the store. You can gamble at home with your coffee and ruin yourself.”
“It’s like feeding a child a spoon full of vodka”
Back in the UK, Rich said she compared the wave of advertising and content on TV to spoon-feeding a child’s addiction.
“It’s like feeding a child a spoon full of vodka and Scotch. It’s normalizing in society.”
Ritchie, who now co-founds Gambling with Lives, notes that she and other families are well aware of the cost.
“I’ve talked to a lot of mothers and they’ve all said to me, ‘My heart is broken, I lost my child, I didn’t know that gambling would take my child,'” she said.
Rich said that if her son Jack came to her and said, “‘I’m addicted to heroin,’ we’d know what to do, but (gambling) we didn’t. Eventually he came to us and said he lost some money, We banned him from bookmakers, but it didn’t matter. He found a way to bet.”
Photo of Jack Ridge provided by his parents.
‘Society let him down’
Rich said her son had tried to quit smoking, and the college graduate was at one point 18 months off. But he’s back to square one.
Rich said she and her husband got a note one day in 2017 after another long abstinence from gambling.
“Out of the blue, Jack wrote, ‘The old problem is back. I’m gambling again and I’m not coming back from this. Suicide note attached to the email.'”
Rich said Jack didn’t kill himself “because he lost a lot of money,” but he took his own life “because he didn’t think he’d ever be able to get away with gambling.”
“He feels hopeless. Because of the normalization of it, it destroys his sense of being a human being who can take charge of his life. He thinks he’s failed us, but we’ve failed him and society has failed him.”
If you or someone you know is addicted to gambling, here are some resources to get Gambler Anonymous.
You can also contact ConnexOntario at 1-866-531-2600 if you are struggling with a mental health addiction or gambling problem.