Matthew Browne, photo: Paul Jeffers
A major new study from Central Queensland University has found gambling is a social issue on a similar scale to major depressive disorder and alcohol misuse and dependence.
Lead researcher Dr Matthew Browne says the study Assessing gambling-related harm in Victoria found harm is not limited to those at the problem end of the gambling spectrum.
'We found people at the moderate and even low-risk end of the spectrum are experiencing harm, and because there are more of them, the total impact is greater than the impact from gamblers with severe problems.
'The impact of low-risk and moderate-risk gambling equates to 85 per cent of gambling harm on the community as a whole,' he says.
'You don't have to be a problem gambler to be harmed by gambling.'
Dr Matthew Browne, Central Queensland University
The study found gambling harm is much broader than just financial.
'Many gamblers, even those in the low and moderate-risk categories, have relationship conflict as well as feelings of regret and anger about their gambling,' says Matthew.
'Many also said that gambling led to more drinking, which compounds and exacerbates the harm.'
The study involved interviews with gamblers and professionals in gambling treatment and community support services, analysis of online discussions in gambling help forums, and surveys of more than 5000 gamblers and people who had been affected by someone else's gambling.
Using a standard public health approach, the population-wide impact of gambling harm was then calculated using the most recent prevalence data from the Study of gambling and health in Victoria 2015.
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Matthew Browne speaks about the findings of the study on harm:
Not all harm is equal
Matthew says the report's findings are significant but must be treated with care.
'While the report shows one in six gamblers – more than 500 thousand Victorians – are experiencing some level of gambling harm, not all harm is equal.
'People who are at the severe end of the scale are experiencing debilitating levels of harm, while someone at the lower end is coping with harm similar to having a musculoskeletal condition.
'This study reminds us that just as you don't need to be an alcoholic to experience alcohol-related harm, you don't have to be a problem gambler to be harmed by gambling,' he says.
The study used a standard World Health Organisation approach to measure the impact of a health condition, known as a burden of disease study. This approach measures the effect of a health condition on a person's quality of life.
The researchers can then use data relating to the prevalence of a condition to work out the impact on the community as a whole. In this way, they can demonstrate how a condition compares to other health conditions.
Risk of gambling harm
Musculoskeletal conditions (for example, arthritis)
Manageable but persistent and can get in the way of enjoying life
Mild alcohol use disorder (binge drinking) or stroke (moderate ongoing effects with some cognition problems)
More problematic and may have significant consequences at times
Migraine headaches (in the moment) and bipolar disorder (during a manic episode)
Debilitating impact on quality of life, including ability to work, maintain relationships or maintain physical and mental health
Gambling harm impact on whole community
Due to the large number of gamblers in the low, moderate and problem gambling categories, gambling has a relatively bigger impact on the whole community than some severe but less common conditions.
On the other hand, issues like major depressive disorder or alcohol use have a bigger total impact than gambling, because they are both reasonably severe and widespread.
'Severe alcohol use disorder has a similar impact as problem gambling on individuals, but has a higher impact on the community as a whole due to higher prevalence,' Matthew says.
'Depression has a lower prevalence but a higher impact due to more severe effects on individual quality of life.
'The implication of this finding is that reducing gambling harm in the community as a whole probably means needing to focus more on reducing harm related to low and medium-risk gambling, he says.
Implications for reducing gambling harm
Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation chief executive Serge Sardo says the study validates the organisation's move to a prevention and early intervention focus over the past three years.
'Very early in the life of the foundation, we recognised the need to do more at the prevention end to address gambling harm.
'We have quadrupled funding for local prevention projects and adopted a public health approach to guide our programs,' he says.
The foundation also established targeted community education programs, including a highly successful sporting clubs program, to promote greater awareness among key risk groups.
'Promoting early intervention and tackling stigma through ground-breaking advertising campaigns is aimed at encouraging people to seek help earlier, before they experience harm at the severe end of the spectrum,' Serge says.
'We will use these results to further refine and target our services and our programs over the next year.'
Download the report
* The Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) is a questionnaire, or screen, used to categorise people by the degree of gambling harm they are likely to be experiencing.