What we call electronic gaming machines (or pokies) in Australia are known as fixed odds betting terminals in the UK. And while their distribution is nowhere near as intensive as in Australia, the harm they are causing many people is no different from the Australian experience.
Since the Gambling Act 2005 shifted authority for gambling licensing from magistrates' courts to local authorities, such as councils, the machines have been cropping up all over the UK, particularly in standalone betting shops. These shops can have up to four fixed odds betting terminals, and casinos can have up to 20.
Who you gonna call?
Given the limit for pubs and clubs in Victoria is 104 poker machines, and Crown Casino is licenced to operate 2628 machines, it's little wonder the foundation came up when a counselling and support service in Wales looked for advice on how to help their growing number of gambling clients.
In June this year, the Living Room Cardiff, a service for people with alcohol and other drug addictions, invited me to Wales to share the foundation's expertise in developing gambling help services.
I ran a three-day course for clinicians new to working with gambling clients, delivered the keynote address at Excessive Gambling Wales 15 (the first Welsh gambling conference), presented a public lecture in Cardiff, and helped out with clients at the Living Room for a couple of weeks.
The Living Room takes up the gauntlet
Wales has around 1500 fixed odds betting terminals, or one machine for every 2000 people, and the total gambling losses per person comes to about A$88. In Victoria there is one machine to every 178 people, and the total gambling losses per person are around A$1600.
Even though Wales isn't as saturated with gambling as Victoria, the increase in machine availability over the past ten years has led to increased demand for problem gambling treatment services. Until the Living Room stepped up, there were no specialist help services for the population of over three million, and there is almost no funding.
Thankfully, the Living Room attracts excellent volunteers, including high-profile practitioners such as Steve Rollnick, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Cardiff University.
Even though Wales isn't as saturated with gambling as Victoria, the increase in machine availability has led to increased demand for problem gambling treatment services.
Another area in which the Living Room excels is using the lived experience as a resource. Many of the organisation's qualified volunteer and paid counsellors have addiction histories. As the foundation has prioritised the use of lived experience in the development of Victorian services, seeing this aspect of the Living Room's work in action was an inspiration.
Problem gambling: a universal experience
My work with Living Room clients reinforced how the problems of gambling are depressingly similar, regardless of where you are in the world, and of different legislative and cultural responses.
After being struck by the complexity of the clients he was seeing, Steve Rollnick asked if the most difficult ones were being channelled to him. He was told no – almost all the clients had extremely complex issues, including co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety and alcohol and substance abuse. The response is not surprising, given our experience in Victoria.
The problems of gambling are depressingly similar, regardless of where you are in the world.
This universality underlines the value and importance of working together internationally to prevent and reduce harm caused by gambling. As part of helping to kickstart the Welsh services, the foundation has established a Memorandum of Understanding with the Living Room, to keep communication flowing as the new services grow. We are keen to develop similar relationships with other organisations around the world.