Jari Vähänen: Do jackpot winners need to be protected?

Jari Vähänen of Finnish Gambling Consultants looks at the responsibilities of lotteries in protecting big winners from harm in his latest Lottery Daily Column
Image source: Jari Vähänen

Lottery jackpots have grown enormously in the 21st century. This has increased the popularity of the games as customers want to dream of something big. However, from a business perspective, pots that have grown to mega-size are not just a good thing, as they have resulted in the inflation of jackpots. The usual million lottery offers no longer seem like anything. However, the purpose of this column is not to reflect on what is enough. Instead, my intention is to consider whether the responsible operation of lotteries should be extended to the jackpot winners.

Quickly thinking, it doesn’t occur to a player who has won a big win that they could get into trouble because of it. How could the victory of tens or hundreds of millions make someone’s life difficult? However, we have read numerous stories about lottery winners who have regretted the winnings that ruined their former lives. Former friends have become jealous, and the winners themselves have not been prepared to adapt to the changed life situation. The jackpot winners are also a good target for criminals who may seek to take advantage of the situation of a suddenly enriched person.

Lottery organizations, World Lottery Association, and European Lotteries have excellent guidelines for responsible gaming. Those instructions explain how to protect minors from the dangers of gambling and how to deal with potential gambling problems or risks. However, those guidelines do not say a word about how companies should act responsibly with winners. This is not a criticism of lottery organizations but just an example of how the potential problems of the jackpot winners will not even be thought of.

In the past, especially in the US, it was common for lotteries to publish the name, location, and even a picture of a jackpot winner. Such a measure could strengthen players’ confidence that someone would win large sums of money. The announcement of the big winners also aimed to increase sales of those games. The media is happy to publish stories about the winners, and such stuff is free marketing for lotteries. To the best of my knowledge, less than a dozen US State lotteries have chosen not to disclose winners. Some states also have a pending legislation that would make it possible for winners to refuse to publish information.

US lotteries have the right to publish the winners’ names and their hometowns, as players are committed to this when playing. It is stated in the game rules and coupons. I don’t know if a customer has the option to refuse this in advance, but I suspect it isn’t. In Europe, the situation is different. Companies are not allowed to publish details of the winners without their permission. However, in many countries, there is an opportunity to publish the location where the main win hit. The lotteries are striving for transparency in their operations. They want the public to know that ordinary people win lottery prizes, even incredible jackpot prizes. Publishing the names of prize winners increases the public’s trust in the fairness of lottery draws.

If the customer gives his consent, lotteries in Europe will also be able to publish stories about the big winners. As I said, the winners’ stories are of interest to the general public, which is why lotteries and the media are looking to get interviews. In my opinion, however, lotteries do not, fortunately, put pressure on their customers to come in front of the media, but in principle, getting interviews is still considered to be a good case for the company.

How should lotteries view the anonymity and other protection of winners? I think it is good for winners to stay anonymous, which reduces the risk of crime and other unwanted behavior. However, publicity is only one aspect that should be considered in the protection of players. Another critical area is the tremendous change in everyday life. When an ordinary person earning a few thousand euros a month suddenly receives millions, tens of millions, or even more, the mental balance can be severely upset. Is it the responsibility of gambling companies to prevent this potential problem in any way?

The general premise has been that the role of gambling companies is to prevent gambling problems in advance. On the other hand, it is not up to the companies to take care treatment of those problems. In many countries, the state collects money from lottery companies to treat problems caused by gambling. Still, the treatment itself belongs to a society or health care, just like the situation is with alcoholics. I think the treatment of winners’ problems should work the same. Lotteries should provide winners with guidelines for future life changes, but in the event of any problems, it should be the responsibility of others to arrange treatment. 

The lottery should be responsible for providing support or guidance so that winners do not let the money negatively impact them. However, it is not the role of the gambling company to provide investment advice. Lotteries can direct big winners to reliable financial institutions that responsibly handle their clients’ investment activities.

I still want to consider the magnitude of the current jackpots. Europe’s biggest lottery win seems to be the 220 million euros won by a French player from EuroMillions last autumn. A few weeks ago, a lucky player won 215 million euros in EuroMillions in the UK. Those sums sound huge when I’m used to the fact that the 10 million jackpot in our own national Saturday Lotto has mobilized a large number of customers. It may be that many also feel strange that I care about the problems of new multimillionaires. That is certainly not a big problem on a broad scale but preventing that problem should still be included in the lotteries’ to-do list.

The situation in the US is more complex than in Europe. EuroMillions’ 200 million euros “super pot” would hardly even get the Yankees moving. The biggest jackpots in the US are over 1.5 billion USD, and such an amount is difficult even to comprehend. How would you think you would react if that prize hit you and the next day, your photo, name, and home address were on the front page of an afternoon newspaper? At least, I think quite a few would like to change their home, not just because they can afford it after the win.

Jari has enjoyed a long and successful career in the gambling sector, having cut his teeth in the horse racing and betting business. He has spent the biggest part of that time with Veikkaus, the Finnish national lottery and gambling operator, where he was responsible for horse and sports betting business. While there he started digital sale channels, introduced the first customer-based strategy and took care of international relationships and businesses. Having resigned from the lottery in spring 2020, he established The Finnish Gambling Consultants Ltd and is now helping lotteries and other gambling operators and suppliers to further develop their businesses.