The ruling came after senior executives at two Swedish newspapers, Expressen and Aftonbladet, challenged fines they were ordered to pay for publishing adverts in their sports pages promoting online gambling.
The advertisements were all for companies based outside Sweden. The newspaper executives argued that Swedish law unfairly penalised the promotion of gambling in foreign-based companies more harshly than it did similar offences inside Sweden.
A Swedish appeal court referred the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg. Thursday’s ECJ ruling acknowledged that Swedish law banned the promotion not just of unlicensed gambling inside Sweden but also of legally organised gambling in other EU states.
However, it ruled that EU law allowed such restrictions on grounds of public security or public health so long as the penalties were not disproportionate to the offence.
“The Court observes that it is clear that the exclusion of private profit-making interests from the gambling sector is… a fundamental principle of the Swedish legislation in this field,” an ECJ statement said.
This justified the restrictions, “in so far as it might be considered unacceptable to allow private profit to be drawn from the exploitation of a social evil or the weakness of players and their misfortune,” the court added.
But the court warned that if the penalties for the unlicensed promotion of gambling inside Sweden were harsher than those for advertising gambling in other EU states, then this would be discriminatory and in breach of EU law.
In Sweden, gambling is restricted to public sector and charity bodies rather than for-profit private sector groups.