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Real Sports Bar and Grill at 15 York Street in Toronto, 2016.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

The Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act, a federal bill passed in mid-2021 with all-party support, rewrote Canada’s gambling rules.

Until the change, most betting on sports – putting down money on your favourite team – existed only in the illicit market. Lotteries were legal, as was gambling on horse races, but to bet on hockey or other sports required what is known as a parlay – cash on the outcome of at least two events. The Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act changed that to allow wagers on a single contest.

Despite its name, however, the bill included no mention or details about how this new business should be “regulated” to make it “safe.”

The rationale behind the bill was sound, which is why various attempts to legalize sports gambling been made over the years. The NDP in the mid-2010s put forward a private member’s bill; the legislation passed last year was a Conservative private member’s bill. The idea is that a legal sports gambling market – operating within the law, subject to government oversight and paying taxes – is better than a thriving illicit market. Just like legal cannabis.

At first, few Canadians noticed that the law had changed. But this past spring, when Ontario opened the country’s first private betting market, it was impossible to avoid. A slew of companies, hustling to get noticed, pumped out a deluge of gambling advertising during the Stanley Cup playoffs; it went so far as broadcasters offering gambling advice during intermission.

Legalized gambling on single-event sports makes sense. But nobody should pretend that it doesn’t come with side effects. Gambling is harmless fun for most, but for some can be addictive and ruinous – just like alcohol or cannabis. For Ottawa to have named the bill “Safe and Regulated,” with the particulars to be decided by each province, was a cop out. There’s vague talk in the industry about “responsible” gambling but the ads tend more to glorifying it. One heavy-rotation ad from last spring featuring Wayne Gretzky promised that every bet had a “chance to grab destiny,” “defy the odds” and a “potential for greatness.”

On the plus side, money from the previously illicit market is now in the public domain. This year, from April to June, $4.1-billion was put on the table in Ontario, with the province taking a cut of $162-million.

But there are also second thoughts about the lack of care taken to minimize gambling’s downsides, including among the law’s backers on Parliament Hill. Brian Masse, an NDP MP who was a leading proponent, likens the current flood of ads to “the early days of tobacco” and calls it “totally inappropriate.” Kevin Waugh, the Conservative MP behind the successful private member’s bill, said the details of the market are “up to the provinces now to regulate.”

There are better options than Ontario’s free-for-all. One modest step is to regulate ads, including restricting the celebration of improbable riches, and banning the use of celebrities such as hockey stars. That’s what’s happening in Britain. Betting sponsorships with teams and broadcasters could also be limited. And a further possible step – the same as cannabis – would be to largely disallow any sports gambling advertising at all. That’s the choice Italy and Spain have made.

It’s one thing to have legal gambling; it’s another to glamorize it, hour after hour, through sports broadcast after sports broadcast. For example, though alcohol and cannabis are legal, celebrities like Mr. Gretzky can’t appear in ads extolling the joys of getting high or drunk. And glamourizing gambling to children is a real worry – the same as exists with alcohol or cannabis. Yet Canada’s new world of sports broadcasts makes gambling seem to be an essential part of watching a game.

Like alcohol or cannabis, it is true that most people who indulge in gambling have self-control, and gamble only moderate sums. Ontario’s latest numbers showed there are 492,000 active sports bettors in the province, and the average monthly spend is $113. But as is the case for booze or weed, most of the betting is done by a small number of people – many of who have big addiction issues. A report from Britain found that 86 per cent of online profits for gambling companies come from 5 per cent of bettors.

Canada was right to legalize sports betting. But Ottawa failed when it said what was coming would be “safe and regulated.” Fixing that is now up to the provinces.