How policy changes can help Australia’s gambling problem

In Australia, gambling has become a major addiction. Australians are among the world’s heaviest gamblers and the biggest losers, with an average gambling loss of A$1292 per person in 2017-2018. Policy reform is ineffective in addressing this issue because people like Carolyn Crawford frequently believe they are just playing for fun—even when it costs them money every night!

Pam Crawford had a job she enjoyed, but after being laid off for the umpteenth time at the age of 54, with no other options to support her family and pay their rent, Pam found herself in a difficult situation. She began using gaming machines as a social activity out of necessity when they became available in bars near her home; it was something new that she could do since work seemed such an unattainable goal. When this habit became an addiction and went unchecked by those around Pamela who should have cared enough about what was happening to help control it before things got worse—her employer eventually caught wind from their own investigations—she would lose everything, including 18 months in prison because stealing money wasn’t going to fix anything.

It opened my eyes to the fact that gambling is a type of addiction. While the typical examples only include drugs and alcohol, new data from Australia’s Productivity Commission shows no differences between those addictions and addiction to other activities such as gambling.

My initial reaction to this ordeal was negative because I felt ashamed for having an issue that so many people had never heard of or considered until now, but after exploring and learning more of what these statistics claim to be true – well, let’s just say they made me feel relieved in some way, even if they’re still not something you’d want any person going through.

According to research, problem gambling can lead to job loss, bankruptcy, family violence, and homelessness. Many gambling addicts steal from their employers or friends to fund their addiction, often with disastrous consequences for themselves and those around them.

According to the Productivity Commission, at least A$4.7 billion is lost in Australia alone each year as a result of this destructive habit, which has been linked in numerous studies not only here but also globally to theft, joblessness, and other issues, leading to innumerable issues such as unemployment and even suicide cases all over the world.

The greatest losers

What is it that makes Australians so addicted to gambling? In 2017-2018, Australian gamblers lost a staggering $25 billion. This figure is more than double that of the United States, which lost only about $10 million during the same time period. When combined with electronic gaming machines (EGMs), horse racing, and other sports betting, Australia’s total gambling revenue for the year reached an astounding $218 billion!

The reason for this addiction could be due to a variety of factors, such as EGM usage being available 24 hours a day or simply unlucky odds of winning on any bet; however, one thing is certain: if no action is taken soon, these numbers will continue to rise.

Gaming has the highest gambling turnover, owing largely to policy changes that resulted in the proliferation of poker machines in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Tim Costello AO is now campaigning against it through his Alliance for Gambling Reform, believing it is a failed public policy. “Every other state and country relies on payroll taxes or stamp duty rather than preying on addicts.”

The technical argument that “it’s easy revenue, so we can’t do it any other way” is an odd trap. Costello compares Australia’s reliance on gambling revenue and widespread acceptance to the United States’ attitude towards gun ownership. “We can’t believe how the US National Rifle Association has captured politics there,” he says. “The rest of the world looks at us and the way this industry has caught politics here – it’s no longer just about being in power for them anymore; they’ve got all these interests now – and wonders, ‘How did you let this happen?’ It appears to be a foregone conclusion.”

Costs versus benefits

Fiona Patten, leader of the Reason Party and Member of Parliament for Victoria’s Northern Metropolitan region, claims that gambling addiction is not given enough attention by the government because the industry makes billions of dollars. She cites economic and social costs outweighing any benefits to states as justification for her position.

One of the economic benefits of gambling that many people, such as Patten, overlook is how it has played an important role not only in generating revenue and creating jobs during its development, but also more recently in boosting tourism.
“These days, [gambling] may help fund our hospitals and generate tax revenue,” says Patten. One area where this is most visible is with the casinos that have sprung up across Melbourne’s suburbs in recent years, providing both employment opportunities and much needed infrastructure investment through retail sales boosts. According to the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, mental health sector costs account for 22% of what they spend on treating gamblers, far outweighing any economic benefits.

Michael O’Neil is a professor and the executive director of the University of Adelaide’s Adelaide Centre for Economic Studies; he has studied the Australian gambling industry over 30 times. He claims that the employment argument from this sector is false because there are many other types of jobs in a hotel or club that create workforce as well.

According to Michael O’Neil, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide and a gambling researcher, Australia’s electronic game machine facilities are very different from the rest of the world. “For every A$1 million turnover at a venue, gambling would employ approximately 3.2 people,” he claims. This is something to consider when comparing how much money these machines make for venues to alcohol sales, which only has an employment rate of 8% per $1 million earned, or 2 employees on average for every 1 employee working with gaming machines.

Third, for every A$1 million in food and entertainment revenue, 20.2 people are employed. The employment multipliers are much higher because standalone electronic machines do not require many people to manage—only one person can operate it at a time! This means that more money is being pumped into the economy than before because there will be more jobs available to do other things like manufacturing or providing coffee beans to cafes rather than just making gaming machines.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Australia is the prevalence of electronic gaming machines in hotels and nightclubs. This has been an issue for many years, but it is finally being addressed with an official law that prohibits these types of games entirely.

Keeping the harm to a minimum

The Productivity Commission conducted extensive research and discovered that, while many Australians enjoy gambling, policy should aim to preserve the benefits while targeting those gamblers who face significant risks or harm. The report recognises state governments’ efforts to reduce problems that people face on a daily basis, but it also notes that more work is needed to achieve an effective coherent approach.

Patten contends that state governments must play a much larger role in reducing gambling harm. “We’ve asked questions and put up amendments that aren’t about banning gambling, but about limiting it,” she says. Patten hopes to see better systems for people who want to self-exclude themselves from gaming addictions by limiting their access to these machines through some sort of identification system or facial recognition software, so they are no longer tempted by offers like free spins and cash rewards on sites like VPFreeGames.

“At the moment, those self-exclusion policies are very lax and rely entirely on the individual failing to appear at the venue.” According to O’Neil, methods that reduce the risk of gambling addiction include limiting the amount of time spent playing poker machines to two hours per day, capping the maximum bet amount at A$1 per spin (or game), and reducing the number of hours casinos can stay open from 16 to 10 or 12 each day “The ultimate goal for governments is to improve consumer protections and put harm-reduction measures in place to help people who want to avoid becoming addicted gamblers.

Susan Rennie, a public health expert and former mayor of Melbourne’s Darebin Council, believes that gambling advertising during sporting events is a problem. She is also concerned about online advertisements promoting gambling to children who are playing online games. “Children come home from school to find their favourite game embedded with all kinds of gaming ads,” she explained.

People are more likely to gamble when they see advertisements for it on television, according to a recent study. This not only normalises gambling in general, but it also influences how children perceive sports and what they think about during games. Children are now less concerned with playing and winning with their teams and more concerned with how well or poorly other teams will perform so that betting odds can be determined before starting another game – even if one team has already been eliminated from the competition! As parents, we must ensure that our children understand that this is not healthy behaviour. I don’t want my child quoting probabilities instead of focusing entirely on trying his best at every play/game he participates in, no matter how big or small.

Local approach

Rennie, the Mayor of Darebin, was confronted with a problem. With over A$80 million lost annually on poker machines alone (a figure that is rising year by year), the community needed to act, and he implemented an anti-gambling harm policy in response to the significant impact gambling has had within his municipality.

According to Rennie, a psychologist at the University of Sydney’s gambling and addiction centre, when people lose approximately A$80 million through their own or someone else’s gambling, they frequently experience poverty. This is due to the fact that financial losses can result in bankruptcy, loan foreclosures, and, in some cases, homelessness. According to Rennie, there are also correlations between addictive behaviour like this and family violence, “with family violence there is more frequency as well as severity.”

One of the first things the council did was separate sport and other social activities from gambling, much like tobacco advertising was banned years ago. “Our policy is not anti-gambling; it is about reducing harm by limiting how it can be promoted,” Rennie explains. “Our policy effectively stated that any club or association accepting money or sponsorship and involved with poker machines will not have access to city resources.”

The Australian Capital Territory Government has announced new policies for sporting clubs aimed at keeping them away from potentially harmful elements such as gambling addiction when they use municipal facilities such as grounds and grants. Minister Gayle Tierney explains: “It’s critical that we strike this balance between community support and financial support.”

According to Rennie, labelling anyone with a gambling addiction as “problem gamblers” is stigmatising, and research has shown that this can prevent people from seeking help. “From a public health standpoint,” she says, “if we take someone who becomes addicted to the machine — which is a fairly predictable outcome of producing machines with features like it — then referring to them as a ‘problem gambler’ shifts responsibility away from the product and onto an individual.”

Rennie also points out that labelling anyone suffering from compulsive gambling as a “problem gambler” in order to describe their condition may appear harmless on the surface, but it actually worsens matters by shifting blame for one’s addictive behaviour onto themselves instead.

Many people have developed a gaming addiction. The industry preys on vulnerable people, which is unfortunate because it is critical to remove the stigma associated with addicts and their struggles with gaming. “A great deal of thought and psychology has gone into developing machines that will keep your hands on them for as long as possible until you’ve lost everything.” This was true in Crawford’s case; she had nothing left but owed money from her gaming spendings.

“Going to prison was a new experience in my life.” I had never considered it before, but in retrospect, this is the best thing that has happened because of the amount of counselling and guidance they provide.”

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