Online Gambling, Regulation and the Pandemic – hot topics at Helsinki GAMIC Workshop


Sebastian Dahlström , freelance journalist
Published 19 Apr 2023

The challenges of regulating online gambling and the shift towards a liberal market approach in gambling regulation were among the themes discussed at the fourth GAMIC workshop at the end of March 2023. Researchers from Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark met in Helsinki to share and discuss their latest findings. The impact of the pandemic on gambling was also on the agenda.

– The feedback we got from the participants was positive. This was the fourth GAMIC workshop, and the conference has established itself as an important forum for researchers within the gambling field to meet, says organiser Jani Selin, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare THL.

The presentations at the GAMIC workshop all relate to current issues in Nordic gambling research. The presentations were based on published research, preliminary results or research plans.

Online casinos operating without licence: A growing concern

While the Nordic countries share many socio-cultural similarities, there are many, particularly legislative, differences between the countries when it comes to gambling. Denmark and Sweden has a licence-based system, whilst the state still has a gambling monopoly in Norway and Finland.

– At the moment, there is a political discussion in Finland leaning towards reforming the gambling monopoly Veikkaus. Norway and Finland are the last two countries in Europe with a strong state monopoly. If Finland decides to abolish it, it could influence the discussion in Norway as well, says Jani Selin.

Regardless of how the gambling market is organised, the biggest discussion in the four Nordic countries represented at the GAMIC workshop relates to gambling at online casinos that operate without a licence in the domestic  market.

– It is very hard to regulate online casinos that don’t want to apply for a licence to operate within a certain country, but still target the country’s residents through marketing. These companies’ share of the gambling market is increasing, and there is an ever-ongoing race between technology that makes them possible and regulation trying to limit them.

Shift towards liberal market approach in gambling regulation

The question of regulation was one of the major themes at the conference. Jani Selin says one of the presentations that he found particularly interesting was held by Jessika Spångberg from the Swedish Public Health Agency. The presentation focused on the 2019 reform in Sweden when the gaming monopoly was replaced by a licence-based system.

– Spångberg presented the arguments behind the gambling reform in Sweden. The reasons behind the reform are a shift in the societal approach to gambling, from a public health approach to a liberal market approach, says Jani Selin.

As the question of re-regulation is also discussed in Finland, the Swedish perspective is particularly interesting in this context. 

– It might be challenging to prevent the harm caused by gambling if the way of thinking shifts towards a free market approach. We know this because the more money that is put into the gambling market as a whole, the more gambling-related problems we’ll have.

Jani Selin also highlights another presentation at the conference.

– When state monopolies give way to private actors, there are more and more companies competing for the consumer’s attention. Thomas Babila Sama from the University of Helsinki presented preliminary results indicating that the gaming industry uses similar marketing strategies as the tobacco or alcohol industry.

The risks of increased online gambling: The Nordic countries at the forefront

One of, if not the, biggest and most influential trends within the field of gambling research is the trend towards increased online gambling. There is a multitude of risks associated with online gambling. Usually, the problems are the same within traditional gambling, but accentuated in online gambling, Jani Selin explains.

– Online gambling is characterised by easy access and a fast pace. In an environment where it is easy to transfer big sums of money to online casinos, it is also easy to lose big sums. And it is also easier to loan more money.

On top of this, online gambling is much harder to control, as many of the online casinos and betting shops operate globally.

Another big trend is the ever-increasing similarity between video games and gambling online. Certain elements in video games resemble gambling, such as loot boxes, for example.

– At the same time, gambling has borrowed certain kinds of entertainment elements from video games, Selin adds.

Conference data hints at increase in gambling during pandemic, but conclusions still unclear

Some new data was presented at the conference hinting at an increase in gambling during the pandemic. Jani Selin says it is still too early to draw conclusions on how the lockdown affected gambling behaviour.

– It varies from country to country, but there was research presented indicating that the telephone calls to gambling helplines increased in Finland and Denmark during the pandemic. It is, however, hard to say if this has to do with an increase in gambling or an increase in problematic gambling.

During the pandemic, a lot of the slot machines in public places were turned off, which was a counter trend. Online gambling was accessible all the time, but it is still too early to draw conclusions on how much it increased, if at all.

– It is also too early to tell if there are any permanent changes in gambling behaviour as a result of the pandemic, says Jani Selin.

Plans underway for fifth conference

The three previous GAMIC workshops proved that there is a need for Nordic cooperation in the field of gambling research, and this view was strengthened at the fourth conference. Jani Selin says plans for a fifth conference are already being made.

– The field of gambling research is thriving. It was particularly nice to see many young researchers at the conference, giving presentations on their research. The future looks bright for Nordic gambling research.