Trends & Features

Study on sports sponsorship by tobacco, alcohol and gambling companies could lead to major reforms

The £1.6M research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will be carried out by experts at the University of Nottingham, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of Glasgow. The study is in direct response to the 2021/22 UK government review into gambling laws. Whilst the review proposed a series of reforms to casino gaming, it failed to place any definitive restrictions on gambling sponsorships in professional sport.

Tobacco sponsorship is no longer legal, but sports fans are still routinely exposed to sponsorship by the alcohol and gambling industries. The health dangers of this involvement are pressing. Alcohol-related harm costs NHS England approximately £3.5bn each year, while smoking-related health conditions cost over £2bn, and the annual economic burden of harmful gambling is estimated to be around £1.27bn.

‘Kicking the Habit: Historicising ‘Addictive’ Sport Sponsorship in Britain, 1965-2025’ will analyse the tobacco, alcohol, and gambling industries’ relationships with five professional sports (football, rugby, cricket, formula one, tennis), from the first sports sponsorship deals of the mid-1960s to 2025. The data will reveal how these relationships first came about and how the sponsorship deals have been shaped over time. It will demonstrate how precedents were established, and how regulatory limitations were negotiated or elided during the period when unhealthy sports sponsorship boomed in Britain. The research will also provide vital qualitative historical data on commercial influences on public health.

Anna Greenwood, Professor of Health History at the University of Nottingham, is leading the project. She said: “We are so excited to have achieved this award which will show just how important historical precedents have been in shaping contemporary responses to sports sponsorship by unhealthy industries. We need to better understand the past to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.”

Heather Wardle, Professor of Gambling Research and Policy at the University of Glasgow and Co-Director of Gambling Research Glasgow, added: “Given the near ubiquity of professional football and gambling partnerships, it’s often difficult to remember that it didn’t used to be this way. As the gambling industry extends their partnerships with other sports, it’s vital to explore the actions they took to establish this “new normal”. This project will examine how commercial power and decision-making has influenced our sporting environments and what should be done about it.”

Alex Mold, Associate Professor in History at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Alcohol, tobacco, and gambling have many things in common, especially the harm they can cause. But these products, and the industries that lie behind them, are also different. By exploring their histories, we will explain why, and show how, this continues to matter today.”

The study will not only contribute to wider analyses of the changing landscape of health in the UK, but it will also help to shape future strategies and ethical guidelines around commercial influences on health.

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