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U.K. enters new ad age for gambling

12 Sep 2007

By Cesar G. Soriano

Britain introduced sweeping new laws last week that will overhaul the country's gaming industry for the 21st century, regulating everything from online gambling websites to television advertising.

The Gambling Act of 2005, which went into effect Sept. 1, replaces practically every gaming law on the book, some dating back to 1845. The law affects most forms of gambling including online casinos, land-based casinos, bingo parlors, bookmakers, phone-in quizzes and even pub slot machines. They will be regulated by a new watchdog, the Gambling Commission, which bills itself as one of the most powerful gambling regulators in the world.

But it will be on television – not casinos – where players notice the biggest change. For the first time ever, gambling operators will be permitted to advertise on radio and television.

Casinos began airing TV commercials just hours after the Gambling Act came into force on Sept. 1, beginning with Aspers Casino at the Gate in Newcastle, northeast England. Other operators immediately announced plans to begin airing television commercials soon including bookmakers Ladbrokes, Coral and online gambling company

"We haven't done our own television ads yet, but very likely we will," says Ann Aslett, spokeswoman for the Walthamstow Stadium dog track in London. "I would say the answer is yes but it's still the very early days of the Act."

Gambling operators won't have free reign on the airwaves. The industry is subject to strict advertising codes that ban commercials that target people under 18, feature players who appear to be under 25 or encourage irresponsible or excessive gambling.

The gaming industry has gone a step further, voluntarily agreeing not to show ads before 9 p.m. except during sporting events, displaying the address for -- a website offering advice for problem gambling -- and banning advertising on children's replica sports team jerseys.

The U.K's Gambling Commission has the power to impose fines and other punishments on gaming operators who breach advertising codes of practice.

"At the end of the day, failure to comply with the rules exposes a licensed operator to a range of sanctions including fines, prosecution and where serious or recurring breaches occur, the removal of their operating license," says a Gambling Commission spokesperson, who declined to be named per British practice.

While opening the airwaves to adverts, the British government has simultaneously banned ads from online gambling websites based outside the European Economic Area (EEA). That effectively bans about 1,000 online gaming sites from advertising in the U.K. And it prompted several major brands, like William Hill and Betfred to move its operations. William Hill announced last month it was relocating its operations from the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean to Gibraltar and Malta. Betfred moved to Gibraltar and Intertops moved to Malta.

The ban applies to all forms of advertising including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, taxis, buses and London Underground subway trains.

"I make no apology for banning adverts for websites from places that don't meet our strict standards," Culture Secretary James Purnell said in a statement.

Jurisdictions outside the EEA can apply to join the British government's "white list" of places exempted from the ad ban if they can pass a strict litmus test of their gambling regulatory standards.

The Isle of Man and Alderney passed; The Netherlands Antilles and Tasmania failed. Costa Rica and Belize chose not to bother.

The government is still considering applications from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory and Antigua, home to the largest number of gambling websites with 537. White listed jurisdictions must prove they have measured to protect children and vulnerable people, keep out crime and ensure fair play.

"The fact that only Alderney and the Isle of Man have been able to meet the high standards demanded by our white listing criteria shows how tough the Gambling Act is," said Purnell. "Indeed white listing has actually helped drive up regulatory standards in some countries.

In addition to advertising regulation, other key changes of the British Gambling Act of 2005 include the lifting of membership requirement for casinos, allowing bingo clubs to offer rollover jackpots and making phone-in quizzes harder.

The Act also removes more than 6,000 "fruit machines", or slots, from premises such as takeout restaurants, taxi offices and other places where children could play them unsupervised.

British Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe says the Gambling Act was long overdue to bring the industry in line with new technologies that have changed the way people gamble. "TV's, home computers and mobile phones have become the digital equivalent of a betting slip and casino chip," Sutcliffe said in a statement.

Apart from the visible television ads, most gamers will not be directly impacted by the new legislation, says Aimee Sieczko of the Rank Group, which operates 33 Grosvenor Casinos and 103 Mecca Bingo parlors in the UK. "Customers should not be affected. They will only benefit from the changes (such as) some new games that we are now able to introduce," she says.

The Rank Group, which last year sold the Hard Rock business to the Seminole Tribe, is also transforming its London Hard Rock Casino into its new hip brand, G Casino. The new G Casino Piccadilly opens Oct. 1.

"There are no plans to advertise externally at present," says Sieczko. "Our focus for the time being is to ensure existing customers are fully aware of the rebrand and the improvements.

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