The Swedish Government’s Covid-19 pandemic intervention in the gambling market has been the subject of much scrutiny. In a recent LinkedIn post, Georg Westin, founder of Hero Gaming, expressed his frustration with the Government’s approach. Westin noted that, while the Covid-19 lockdown did not cause a surge in Swedish problem gambling, the Government had been busy imposing new gaming regulations, including a weekly SEK 5,000 ($4486) deposit limit for online casinos, a requirement for players to specify their login times and a SEK 100 cap on bonuses.
In the realm of gambling policy, such knee-jerk reactions are nothing new, nor unique to Sweden, but rather a disappointingly common approach in many European jurisdictions
While it is somewhat understandable that the Responsible Gambling Minister, Ardalan Shekarabi, would be concerned about the potential for harmful gambling during a time of isolation and economic distress, it is unreasonable for him to have acted without first ascertaining whether his concerns were warranted.
In the realm of gambling policy, such knee-jerk reactions are nothing new, nor unique to Sweden, but rather a disappointingly common approach in many European jurisdictions, where the act of taking action often becomes more important than solving the problem presented. In the case of the alleged pandemic-fueled increase in problem gambling rates, the first step should have been to ascertain if there was a problem to begin with.
Once the facts were presented in a March 2022 report by the Swedish Gambling Authority, evidence collected from state authorities, problem gambling associations and academia revealed that the proportion of problem gamblers had not increased compared to the time before the pandemic and the introduction of the more restrictive deposit and bonus limits.
As a former politician, I recognise the situation Shekarabi found himself in. It was not unreasonable to ask whether problem gambling had increased during the pandemic, and that was precisely what journalists in Sweden did. What was the Minister’s solution to this problem, the journalists asked, since most of them did not bother to test the underlying premise.
It is clear that the Minister should have waited for the facts before imposing new regulations on the gambling industry, rather than acting on perceived-but-unfounded concerns
Minister Shekarabi proved unable to resist the false hypothesis presented to him, and it can even be argued that he capitalised on the gaming industry’s poor reputation to score political points. Who really cares that the Minister acted first and asked questions later? Probably not the average Swede whom I meet in the grocery store or at the hair salon. The only thing most people in Sweden possibly remember is that Shekarabi took the fight to the predatory gambling industry... and that can never be wrong, right?
Unfortunately, by acting on a false hypothesis, imposing onerous regulations and limiting Swedish consumers’ access to legal gambling options, Minister Shekarabi may have inadvertently driven players into the arms of unregulated or illegal gambling operators who prey on vulnerable customers, offer no consumer protections and do not ensure integrity or fair play.
As the pandemic-era limits finally expired in November 2021, and the Government abandoned its plan for a new temporary deposit limit, the Swedish Parliament’s Committee on the Constitution rebuked Shekarabi for his intervention in the gambling market. It is clear that the Minister should have waited for the facts before imposing new regulations on the gambling industry, rather than acting on perceived-but-unfounded concerns.
Ultimately, it is concerning that policies are increasingly judged not by their outcomes but by the intentions of politicians. While it is important for politicians to take forceful action when faced with real problems, it is equally important for them to resist the urge to act on fabricated problems. Instead, they should heed the advice of Winnie the Pooh and “not underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear and not bothering.” I, for one, look forward to the day when a Minister is asked what he or she intends to do about a purported problem and replies, “nothing.”