Jannie Haek: In Europe the Belgian National Lottery is leading when it comes to protecting its online player
Is Belgium still the “wild west” of online betting? How will the upcoming ban on gambling advertising affect its market? What is the awareness of Belgians about responsible gambling? The CEO of the Belgian National Lottery, Jannie Haek, answered these and many other questions in an interview with Igamingexpress. We invite you to read the thoughts of a man who has managed to get to know the gambling industry inside out during his more than 30-year career.
In 2018, you said that Belgium is the ‘Wild West’ of online betting. How would you describe the market now?
The liberalization of the Belgian gaming market, over 10 years ago, was not done in very insightful manner with regards to the players. In 2012, our country opened the gates wide to the gambling industry and this without a functioning control body and difficult to enforce regulation. This created a situation where no one abides by rules and where the law of lobbyists and money prevails.
At the time, policymakers started from the premise that the sector had to remain economically viable, but we must not build on those old premises if we want to protect the players. It is an equally crooked consumer protection to demand a minimum of 50% sugar in jam. The choices made by Belgium in terms of regulation and market opening have had a huge impact on the evolution of the gaming market and sadly enough entailing severe addiction issues in our country.
The market of the private sector quadrupled in those 10 years. In many cases, given such a market scenario, the state-owned company would be bound to fade out. We can truly be very proud that our National Lottery maintained it’s place in the market.
And this with significant less advertising and marketing compared to the investments in that area made by the private players in the Belgian gaming market.
How do you perceive the decision to restrict gambling advertising in Belgium from July 1,2023. Is this a step in the right direction?
In this regard, the European Court of Justice has been issuing for years that a national government must give its monopolist the necessary means to advertise and at the same time limit other providers in terms of their advertising policy. This is prompted by the fact that games and game dynamics belonging to private operators carry significant dangers relating to addiction.
The rationale of the European Court is based on the principle of proportionality; the higher the risk, the stricter the consumer protection measures should be.
In this regard it certainly is a step in the right direction. But besides the restriction on advertising there are other measures that can ensure that the market is a level playing field within which the player is guaranteed better protection. I am thinking in this context, for example, of taxation. Proportionally, the private sector provides a very low return to society in Belgium. In addition, the business model of the private sector also carries an increased risk of addiction by focusing on maximizing bets through aggressive play with high payout.
This is diametrically opposed to the model of a lottery where there are a huge number of players who play for small stakes from time to time. The players are aware that the chances of winning are very small. We are highly transparent about those chances of winning. For Lottery players it’s mainly about the amusement of participating and not the big win.
What was 2022 like for the National Lottery? Indeed, it managed to get close to the record turnover of 2021, but failed to surpass it.
We were facing a challenging context in 2022. National Lottery products are pro-cyclical: weak consumer confidence, with families’ anxiety around their financial situation at its root, certainly had an impact. 1 in 2 players indicated, adjusting his/her playing behavior by playing for lower stakes and/or playing less frequently.
Besides this, the National Lottery has not adjusted its prices, while its costs are rising due to high inflation. But again, given the even more challenging market situation in which we have to operate it remains remarkable that we can continue to produce such great results.
How does the future look like for the National Lottery, considering the changes in the law and economic situation?
Modern Lotteries were born in Bruges in 1441 and are to this day operating under a very similar system. So, we are confident that a model that has proven its relevance since ages is a strong business.
Off course our business is subject to the economic outlook in our country. Which is in fact is a good sign. It means that people don’t spend money on our products that they can’t spare.
We are very much in favor of strong regulation when it comes to games which carry a high risk to addiction. It goes without saying that our sports betting branch follows the new legislation very strictly even before the specific law is in effect. Lottery games obviously are another category.
The Belgian National Lottery offers grants for culture, sports, science, and many other projects. What are you plans in this area for 2023?
As a state-owned lottery, we have an operating agreement with our government. We pay a monopoly license to the state treasury. Besides this contribution we fund hundreds of good causes directly out of our business profit which returns entirely to the whole of society.
The four major domains in which we donate are indeed sports, science, art & culture and social projects. This year a total of 355MIO euro will thus be reinvested in Belgian society.
How would you assess Belgians’ awareness of gambling?
Our domestic draw game Lotto was launched 45 years ago. Our large player base grew up with this game and they never regarded it as a gambling product but rather as a game of chance, a lottery game.
Before the liberalization of the Belgian market, gambling addiction was a rather marginal problem in Belgium society. Unfortunately, gambling addiction is manifesting itself more and more with sad consequences for all involved and the whole society.
The public debate has its roots in this negative evolution since the market was opened which also causes reputational damage to the National Lottery.
Is the responsible game in Belgium at a high level?
There is a big gap between how we at the National Lottery approach responsible gaming and how the issue is tackled by the private operators. You could argue that they are more into some sort of “responsible gaming-washing”. They have loud mass media campaigns on the topic but that is a very dual method. On the one hand the campaigns are still promoting the brand in a way and are not really about protecting the players.
On the other hand, it can be established that they are not walking the talk when it really comes to protecting players. In the first place by not respecting the imposed rules to protect players but on top of that also deliberately using techniques to get players addicted to their products.
Again, the approach of the National Lottery is diametrically the opposite. In Europe the Belgian National Lottery is leading when it comes to protecting its online player.
The gaming limits installed on our digital gaming platform are excellent tools to limit the risk for addiction and even avoid developing addictive behavior. The default limits installed are well below those imposed by the regulator.
The deposit limit to charge money on the Lottery player account is set to 200euros while €500 is the law-imposed limit. Players are limited to playing 35 games per hour. Winnings over €500 are transferred to the players bank account and not to their player account. These are just a few examples of how the National Lottery is working together with the players to ensure that our games can remain a pleasant amusement instead of becoming a compulsory habit.
What are your plans as for the National Lottery for the current year 2023?
In these challenging times the National Lottery remains very committed to honor its engagement towards society. On the one hand by insuring the financial support to society through the aid to numerous good causes. On the other hand, by fulfilling fully its task to channel players towards safe and responsible games.
To realize these lasting objectives, we continue building our strategy on 4 pillars: player centricity, ubiquity, lottery centricity and sustainability.