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As a third inquiry is launched, is number up for Desmond's lottery?

Investigations spread to coverage of charity venture in media mogul's newspapers

Within a month of its launch, Richard Desmond's controversial Health Lottery is the subject of an official investigation by the advertising watchdog following complaints from the public.

The Advertising Standards Authority had 10 complaints which relate not only to advertisements for the the lottery on television and in print, but also to editorial articles published in newspapers owned by Desmond's Northern & Shell media empire.

Mr Desmond's lottery is now under investigation on three separate fronts: the Gambling Commission and the National Lottery Commission are already examining it after a request by the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The ASA said it had received complaints that a front page editorial piece in the Daily Star on 28 September under the headline "Lotto tonic for Britain" should have been labelled as an advertisement. A similar complaint was made about a Daily Express front page article the same day headed "New lottery to make Britain Better".

Such complaints threaten to undermine Northern & Shell's strategy of using its media brands, which include Channel 5 and celebrity magazines including OK!, to support the Health Lottery with editorial content.

The watchdog will also examine claims by the Health Lottery in its advertising, including the assertion in a regional newspaper advert that players were "seven times more likely to win our top prize [than the National Lottery]". It also claimed that players who pick five winning numbers would automatically win a £100,000 prize.

This week, Mr Hunt said in Parliament that he was "worried" by the potential effect of the Health Lottery, which donates 20.3p of every £1 raised to charity. This is the minimum amount required; the National Lottery provides 28p. "I am worried about the Health Lottery because protecting the income of good causes is a very, very important responsibility that this Government has," Mr Hunt said. The Health Lottery claims that since it launched, the money taken by the National Lottery has increased. The new game's chief executive, Martin Hall, said he was "not surprised that our advertising has attracted so much forensic interest", a likely reference to its competitors and the many media rivals of Northern & Shell.

"All of our advertising copy has been approved by Clearcast, the broadcasting industry body responsible for ensuring advertising copy complies with the rules," he continued. "Clearcast agreed our advertising copy could exclude the caveat 'up to' in terms of winning the top prize on the grounds that the chances of a Health Lottery top prize winner being awarded less than the £100,000 advertised is a tiny 0.009."

Mr Hall said the chances of a winner being awarded a lower prize was "about once in every 200 years". He also claimed that the other complaints against the Health Lottery were unfounded. The comparison with the odds of winning the National Lottery – which is run by the Camelot Group and was launched in 1994 – was "based on mathematical fact".

He added: "The chances of winning our top prize is two million to one compared with 14 million to one for the top prize on the National Lottery, and obviously people understand that the prize payouts are different. Equally, there is no truth whatsoever in the complaint that our terms and conditions mean we might sometimes share prizes. We never will, and none of our terms and conditions oblige us to."

Health Lottery: The Complaints

Responding to 10 complaints it received about a TV advert, a regional press advert and two articles in the Richard Desmond-owned Daily Express and Daily Star, the Advertising Standards Authority will decide if these should have been clearly marked as adverts.

The claim players with five winning numbers can claim £100,000 will also be investigated, as will an advert which says players are "seven times more likely to win our top prize [than the National Lottery]".

The Gambling Commission, meanwhile, will investigate whether the lottery diverts money from good causes. It must also determine if the charity's structure accords with the Gambling Act 2005.

Chris Stevenson