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Why aren’t the terrible costs of gambling taken more seriously in Australia?

1 March 2021 15 views No Comment

By ROSS FITZGERALD

Like the poor, gambling will always be with us and it’s certainly a huge problem for our nation.

Although gambling undeniably brings pleasure to some,  it also greatly damages the lives of many gamblers and their families.

Hence compulsive gambling is a serious threat to the health and well being of Australians.

The Whitlam’s famously recorded a song about problem gambling aptly entitled ‘Blow Up The Pokies’, Tim Freedman’s response to the destructive affect compulsive gambling had on a close friend.

Gambling has much in common with alcohol and other drugs. Indeed, ‘Gambling Disorder’ is included in the two most recent versions of the influential ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.’  It is now considered an ‘impulse control’ disorder. This means that compulsive gamblers are unable to control their impulse to gamble, even when they know that continuing to gamble will have fearful consequences for the person gambling and their loved ones.

While gambling can never be eliminated, the extent of gambling problems in a community and its severity can be reduced. Yet for decades Australia has shown little inclination to reduce the terrible costs of gambling.

Many problem gamblers also smoke heavily and drink alcohol at high risk, thereby exacerbating their problems.

A horse race in Hyde Park in Sydney in 1810 was the first recorded gambling event in Australia, followed by the first recorded lottery game in 1880 and the first slot machines in clubs and pubs in the 1950s.

More than three quarters of Australian adults engage in gambling of some kind. This may well be the highest rate of gambling in the world which in itself is extremely concerning.

According to the 2010 Productivity Commission Report on Gambling, there was a rapid growth following liberalisation of gambling in the 1990s with total recorded losses in Australia exceeding $19 billion in 2008-09 or an annual average of $1,500 per adult who gambled.

The Commission estimated 115,000 Australian adults were problem gamblers with an additional 280,000 at moderate risk.

The risks of gambling increase in people who play lotteries and scratchies,  but they undeniably increase rapidly with frequency of gambling on table games, wagering and gaming machines.

The Commission estimated that 600,000 Australians, 4% of the then adult population, played at least weekly on the pokies, with 95,000 (15%) being problem gamblers.

The social cost of gambling was then estimated to be $4.7 billion per year.

As with many other ‘appetite disorders’, a large majority are able to enjoy gambling with acceptable losses, while a minority account for the vast majority of the profit for the gambling providers. Reducing the harm from gambling inevitably reduces the profitability of the industry.

The social costs of gambling extend well beyond the heavy financial losses. These costs, including mental illness, depression, anxiety, suicide, loss of employment and marital and relationship breakdown are more common in low-income areas. But reliance on the employment gains and economic benefits of gambling for the community also has other substantial non-monetary costs. These have been demonstrated very clearly in the problems encountered by the building of the Crown Casino in Sydney.

It is now acknowledged that Australian casinos sailed close to, or perhaps beyond, an ethical edge in attracting business from overseas high rollers. Yet little has been done to minimise money-laundering by drug traffickers or terrorists. The process by which Crown Casino was able to build the tallest skyscraper in Sydney was anything but transparent.

Harm reduction to counteract the ill effects of gambling could start with some modest measures such as substantially reducing the amount of cash that players can feed into the gaming machines at any one time. The bet limit per button push could also be substantially reduced.

The Commission also recommended that shutdown periods for gaming in hotels and clubs should occur earlier and last longer.

Plus it recommended that ‘pre-commitment’ systems should be required to set binding limits on losses and that ATMs should be relocated away from gaming floors with a daily cash withdrawal limit.

But if we clamp down too severely on domestic gambling, this may encourage growth of on line gambling overseas which would be more difficult to restrain.

Older Australians will still remember the days when ‘off course’ betting on horse races was illegal in Australia. This resulted in widespread law-breaking in the form of SP (Starting Price) gambling over the phone and rampant police corruption. In the early 1960s,  ‘Totalisator Agency Boards’ (TABs) were established to enable Australians to bet legally without going to the races. The next stage was the privatisation of the TABs, followed by decades of poor regulation assisted by powerful and well-connected gambling interests.

Dr Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said that ‘gambling, in common with alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs, gives policy-makers a difficult choice between a goal of unachievable prohibition, which would spark a nasty black market, or regulation aiming to reduce problems to an acceptable level while also managing to control a potentially powerful and avaricious industry’.

But as with policy making for other appetite disorders, the search for least worst options can only happen if there is vigorous community debate and discussion. As Wodak correctly claims, there has been little sign of this happening in Australia although the very public display of the problems of Crown Casino seems to be bringing the debate to the fore.

Certainly it’s well and truly time to seriously consider the pernicious problems that gambling creates in Australian society.

Vested interest will try to shut this debate down but we need to be brave and press on regardless, for the sake of future generations.

Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University and the author of 42 books, most recently a memoir FIFTY YEARS SOBER : AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY, and two co-authored Grafton Everest adventures THE DIZZYING HEIGHTS and SO FAR, SO GOOD – all published by Hybrid in Melbourne.

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