By Bradley Stanton
It’s commonly stated that gambling in Australia is the equivalent of guns in America. The gambling Industry has captured politics in the way the National Rifle Association has in America. Let’s be frank - the gambling industry doesn’t care about you. Its sole purpose is to cause harm and misery to the public by feeding its own addiction to corporate profits.
In Australia, individuals, families, workplaces and entire communities are negatively affected by gambling It is an area desperate for effective action from Federal and State governments yet we constantly see a failure of political leadership creating sensible policies that can reduce the level of harm.
Poker Machines Directly Affect Communities
Poker machines are the most harmful form of gambling, making up $11 billion of Australia’s total gambling losses in clubs and pubs alone. The Australian gambling industry pocketed $25 billion dollars in 2018-19, largely from Australians who can least afford it. A complacent attitude to the gambling industry has resulted in few marketing, planning or technology constraints.
In the Wollongong LGA, there is a total of 2,734 electronic gaming machines - down 9.5 per cent from the same period last year. Despite this, the total net profit from these machines has risen 8.9 per cent to $92,956,492. Kiama and Shellharbour LGAs have 385 Machines (down 1.3 per cent) with net profit up 9.4 per cent to $13,264,466, and the Shoalhaven LGA has 1625 Machines (down 1.7 per cent) with net profit up 14.9 per cent to $44,526,691. $900,000 is lost on pokies in NSW every single hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Speaking recently to the people from Wesley Mission, one statement sticks in my mind. “Net profit equals community losses,” they said. “Money that could have been buying essentials, paying household bills and strengthening local businesses. Local people and the local community lose many times over.”
“Every time sensible reforms to the gambling industry are suggested,” they continue, “ClubsNSW retaliates like a wounded bull, lashing out at anyone who dares challenge their pokies-reliant business model”.
Western Australia has over 1800 licensed venues. They do not have one gaming machine in any of these venues. The argument coming from new scare campaigns from ClubsNSW that pubs and clubs need pokies to survive is an outright lie. The North Melbourne Football Club in Victoria has also recorded yet another operating profit without the need for gaming machines.
Only recently the NSW Crime Commission has recommended the implementation of a cashless gaming card as part of its findings that poker machines across NSW are being used to launder the proceeds of crime and that the gambling habits of people are leading to crimes being committed. The Greens and the NSW government want to introduce a cashless card but the introduction of such doesn’t stop people from gambling, it simply reduces money laundering as people would have to provide proof of their identity to gamble. It would also enable loss limits to be set for the card which would significantly reduce gambling harm.
However, to get a clearer picture of gambling harm, we need to look at the gambling industry as a whole.
Australia’s Addiction to Gambling
Gambling harm is a public health issue growing rapidly and impacting millions. In Australia, we have ministers for the promotion of gambling, yet no ministers for gambling harm reduction. Gambling is an industry that has expertly created a system which is not only very profitable for companies but also directly makes significant contributions to governments.
The problem with this is Australians continue to think their abnormal obsession with gambling is just part of Australian life. We are continuously told it is only a handful of problem gamblers, people who should be more responsible for their own actions, that governments and communities should be worried about.
We are told the gambling industry is good for us, generating government revenue and sponsorship money for sport and other activities. They suggest that gambling is relatively harmless and an integral part of Australian cultural life. Anyone who dare says otherwise must be a moralist or a socialist seeking to impose government-led limitations on fun, enjoyment and fair market profits.
The facts however tell a very different story with Australia blind to its addiction to gambling. The reality is that Australians lose much more per capita on gambling than any other country in the world. This damages individuals, entire families, workplaces, our communities, our justice system, our safety, our health, productivity and wellbeing. With such high losses comes the need for extensive support services for both those who experience gambling harm from their own or someone else’s gambling.
What we know for certain is that the lack of effective regulation of gambling promotions, television advertising and sponsorships has enabled Australian culture to be undermined by an industry generating profits largely through encouraging harmful gambling and supporting activities including money laundering and criminal associations.
Gambling Industry Targets Young Men and Women
Millions of dollars are being spent yearly on promotions and advertising, targeting younger men with an increasingly successful focus on young women, enticing them into the dark world of gambling through lucrative partnerships with the most popular sports in Australia and using celebrities like Australian of the Year, tennis superstar and disability spokesperson Dylan Alcott, also Shaquille O’Neal. In the UK, gambling ads featuring sports and reality TV stars are banned. In Australia, no such restrictions apply. With the rise of social media and influencers, it’s crucial the rules around who can promote gambling, when and where needs to be reviewed and addressed.
In Victoria on free-to-air television, 948 gambling ads were shown on average every day in 2021; so deeply entrenched and under-regulated is the gambling industry that it has found ways to advertise so that we are constantly confronted with options to gamble offline and online. South Australia has banned gambling ads during live broadcasts of sport before 8.30 pm but positive effects are minimal and do not stop children and vulnerable people being exposed multiple times with such a saturated advertising campaign.
This adds to the problem where most people in Australia, including most teenagers, now have mobile phones that enable them to gamble privately without limits and supervision, and we have seen the largest expansion of gambling over the last decade on online websites and mobile apps. Online gambling companies are some of the biggest advertisers in Australia, with advertising on gambling being around $281 million in 2021.
There is significant impact on children. Studies have shown that 91 per cent of children between the ages of 8-16 could recall seeing a promotion for sports gambling, that celebrity endorsements lessened the perceived risks of gambling for young people as they trusted the person supporting the product and around 40 per cent of young people under the age of 16 had engaged in formal or informal gambling. Young people experiencing harm now and into the future must be a major children's rights issue that should immediately be addressed.
The Need for Industry Regulation
There have been many calls for a restructure of gambling regulations in Australia. In the past year alone, we have seen casino reviews in most jurisdictions, evidence of money laundering in pubs and clubs and increased advertising, promotions and inducements from online bookmakers.
All reflect a failing regulatory system. Under the current system, responsibility for preventing gambling harm is placed in the hands of the gambling industry who have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to increasing their profits and in areas such as online gambling. It can be extremely difficult to know when someone moves from not experiencing harm to experiencing harm from gambling.
Education and training around gambling harm and its impacts on individuals, families and our communities is insufficient. There is an obvious need for a national approach to education and training related to gambling harm. Staff involved in gambling-related online activity should be independently trained and accredited in awareness and support for people experiencing gambling harm.
Independent training for staff who work in helplines and who may be contacted by someone experiencing gambling harm alongside common calls including suicide, mental health problems or family violence is needed as well as developing and implementing a nationally consistent, evidence based, education curriculum for schools about gambling and its potential harms.
To achieve awareness of gambling and its harms, we need to abolish the industry-themed responsible gambling ideology and move to a public health model. Victim-blaming narrative has served the gambling industry well, just as it previously served the alcohol and tobacco industries well until they were treated as a serious public health issue. There are currently no areas of any health department in Australia specifically focussed on gambling harm. As few as 10 per cent of people seek help for high levels of gambling-related harms when required.
For someone who is experiencing gambling harm, either due to their own gambling or someone else's gambling there are several services available. This includes the nationwide 24/7 gambling helpline run by Turning Point and in-person, free and confidential gambling support services run across Australia.
Each jurisdiction has different services. In the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and South Australia, the major contractor is Relationships Australia, in Tasmania it is Anglicare, in Western Australia it is CentreCare, in Victoria it is Victorian Responsible Gambling with the Queensland and New South Wales models like that of Victoria’s.
People may also flag that they need support due to gambling related harm through GPs, mental health professionals, community health workers and in some cases allied health professionals.
However, there is little or no evaluation into the effectiveness of most gamblers’ help services. It is therefore not possible to prove the effectiveness of these services and especially given that many are supported either directly or indirectly by gambling companies, which again raises concerns given the incentives for companies to generate profit.
Addiction Health Risks Before Industry Profit
Treatment for people experiencing gambling harm needs to be integrated into the broader health system, especially given the potential for the simultaneous presence of two or more conditions in a person presenting themselves. It also should be properly evaluated including providing a lived experience perspective on how accessible and effective the current treatment options are for different groups of gamblers, their families, workplaces and communities.
Research by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation found that for every $1 lost to gambling around $1.20 in social costs is incurred. The NSW Budget assumes that pokies revenue in pubs and clubs will reach approximately $7.7 billion this financial year, which would incur social costs of $9.3 billion.
Organisations and individuals linked to the gambling industry have poured at least $18 million in political donations into state and territory governments in recent years; this is compared with $50 million disclosed at the commonwealth level in the decade to 2019-20.
More than three-quarters of the $18 million flowed to the Australian Labor Party. The powerful gambling lobby wields enormous influence on the major parties via political donations made by the more than 1,000 local clubs across the state. The leaders of the Liberal, National and Labor parties also enter into agreements with ClubsNSW before each election which ties the hands of any future government to raise gambling taxes or to take genuine action to reduce gambling harm.
Gambling Stress Fuels Suicide Attempts
A bank had extended a line of credit of $120,000 to an aged pensioner, which should not have been granted. That person attempted suicide. A lawyer from a gambling legal service in one day, had four out of six clients admit they were considering suicide. Reform across the industry is urgently needed and real-life stories like these are under-reported and not getting the policy attention they deserve.
Gambling stress pushes more than 400 Australians to suicide each year, a figure that has been given weight by Australia's Productivity Commission. The Alfred Hospital figures show one in five suicidal patients seen by an emergency department is a problem gambler. Among other issues, gambling also increases anxiety stress levels via the stress hormone cortisol, and your heart rate, which can lead to further health risks.
When will the lives of Australians and their communities be worth more than political donations?
The state election in NSW needs to see bi-partisan commitment on suicide prevention and that addressing gambling harm can help save lives. Stronger gambling regulations, especially with online gambling and the introduction of a cashless gaming card is desperately needed along with greater education and awareness of the signs of gambling harm for individuals, families and frontline workers.
We need a total ban on gambling advertising, and an adequately funded, national regulatory structure for gambling.
If you are in Australia and need urgent mental health support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or reach out via the Gambling Hotline on 1800 858 858 or gamblinghelponline.org.au
Feature image: Poker machines, they are the most harmful form of gambling in Australia. Photo credit: Kvnga/unsplash