Sweden, best known for its meatballs, flat-pack furniture and pop group ABBA, has a long and complicated history with gambling - it's said that in the year 1020, King Olaf of Sweden met with his Norwegian counterpart to decide a territorial dispute with a game of dice. The government hasn't allowed the industry to freely develop, though, with a number of restrictions brought in to help regulate and control everything from small sportsbooks to online casinos.
In principle, all forms of both physical and online gambling are entirely legal in Sweden, providing that the operator has been awarded a special licence. In practice, though, only the state-backed Svenska Spel has actually been awarded a licence, leading to much criticism and a number of failed attempts to overturn its monopoly through the courts. Some argue that the current laws contravene the competition rules outlined by the European Union, but the Swedish government has so far resisted any pressure to change. Unusually for a case involving free trade, the European Court of Justice has also consistently ruled in favour of the Swedish government's actions, noting that the creation of a monopoly in this instance is both reasonable and proportionate - the aim being to protect its citizens from fraudulent or illegal operators.
Despite this, the situation changed dramatically in 2012 after the Christian Democrats, a minority party in the centre-right coalition government, stated that they would be open to making the overall gambling market more competitive. What's more, the government has now stated that it intends to introduce new gambling legislation by 2014, paving the way for greater involvement from other international operators. Until these laws come to fruition, the Lotteries Act continues to make it illegal to promote and advertise gambling products that aren't specifically licenced. Swedish citizens are still permitted to access foreign hosted online sites, though, meaning that the somewhat draconian laws have very little practical impact on online gambling.
Changes to the Lotteries Act in 2002 allowed the state sponsored Svenska Spel to provide a much larger online market, including scratch card games, bingo and online poker. Since these amendments, a number of traditional casino games have exploded in popularity. The Swedish population has an enormous appetite for new technology, and the development of mobile and tablet gaming platforms for online games has fuelled the growth in online poker. Although no major online poker tournaments have taken place in Sweden so far, the main event in this year’s Turbo Championship of Online Poker was won by Swedish player frma1103, who won a cash prize of $326,880.
Sports betting is also incredibly popular in Sweden, with almost half of the population thought to be actively involved in sports activities. Aside from football and golf, gymnastics, handball and athletics are also popular with gambling enthusiasts, attracting thousands of pounds worth of bets each and every week.
A number of the major Swedish political parties seem to be coming around to the fact that the current monopoly may not be as effective at tackling social issues as they once thought. Illegal and unregulated gambling operations are still attracting hundreds of customers a year, offering greater payouts and riskier markets than Svenska Spel. Furthermore, a report in 2012 by the Swedish National Audit Office showed that Svenska Spel was effectively failing to curb the pathological problems and risks inherent in gambling, which is one of its main priorities.
That said, rather than advising the market to open up to competition, the report called for tighter controls, more coherent regulation language within the law, and greater powers to combat illegal gambling operations. It would appear that the government is still conflicted as to the right action to take, but with the 2014 elections fast approaching, the major parties only have a limited amount of time in which to resolve the great gambling debate. It's important to remember that online gambling is still legal, though, with Swedish users free to access sites such as Mr Green and 888 at will.
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