Edition #5: Telling our stories

An illustration of an outside setting with earth partially covered by a tarpaulin, playing cards scattered and a cup of tea
An illustration of an outside setting with earth partially covered by a tarpaulin, playing cards scattered and a cup of tea
Illustration: Steven Moore

Gambling in Aboriginal communities: national and international perspectives

Gambling in Aboriginal communities is a significant issue in Victoria. We know that Aboriginal people are more likely to experience gambling harm than other Victorians.

In the foundation’s recent Study of gambling and health in Victoria, as many as 8.71 per cent of Aboriginal Victorians were categorised as having a problem with gambling, according to the clinical definition. However, this may not be an accurate result, given only a small number of Aboriginal people participated in the study.

Of course, harm is not just experienced at the problem gambling end, so a much larger percentage of Aboriginal people would be experiencing gambling harm. Another recent report, Assessing gambling-related harm in Victoria found that 85 per cent of harm is experienced by Victorians outside the problem gambling category.

As there is very limited research on Aboriginal gambling in Victoria, we need to consider information from interstate and overseas when trying to understand it.

Participation in commercial and informal gambling

Aboriginal communities (also known as Indigenous or First Nations communities) across the world are disproportionately affected by gambling harm. Aboriginal people in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States are all more likely to experience problems with gambling than others in the community.

In the 2013 paper The gambling behaviour of Indigenous Australians, Professor Nerilee Hing reported that as many as 80 per cent of Aboriginal people gamble on commercial products like pokies, lotteries and racing, compared to 64 per cent of all Australians. Similar results have been shown in other countries, such as Canada.

Aboriginal communities across the world are disproportionately affected by gambling harm.

While Australian Aboriginal people participate in many commercial forms of gambling, similar to other people in the community, some types of informal gambling may have particular cultural significance. Informal games of cards, played with friends or family, have been shown to be common in parts of New South Wales and Queensland. This is a cultural practice that may build social relationships and provide enjoyment, but also leads to harm for some individuals.

Factors that influence risk

For Aboriginal people, connection to country, spirituality, family and community are strong protective factors in the face of adversity or personal distress.

However, some cultural norms in Aboriginal communities may influence the way harm spreads through the community. Aboriginal communities may have a cultural expectation that resources will be shared, which means family and friends may feel a strong desire to support people experiencing problems. This may mean harm from gambling affects more people in Aboriginal communities than in other communities.

High rates of gambling harm form part of a broader range of health problems affecting Aboriginal communities. The reasons Aboriginal communities face such poor health are complex, but have their roots in many years of discrimination and structural disadvantage. This structural disadvantage can be a contributing factor to gambling harm in Aboriginal communities.

There is strong evidence that gambling harm is linked to socioeconomic disadvantage, and poverty is a significant issue for Aboriginal communities. The Australian 2011 census found that more than a third of Aboriginal people have a household income below $400 per week, compared with only 16.6 per cent of non-Aboriginal Australians. A North American study conducted in 2014 showed that socioeconomic disadvantage increases the risk of gambling harm for Aboriginal Americans.

There is strong evidence that gambling harm is linked to socioeconomic disadvantage, and poverty is a significant issue for Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal people may also experience racial discrimination, which is linked to poorer health. A 2012 VicHealth report found that as many as 97 per cent of Aboriginal Australians may have experienced racism in the previous 12 months. Research has shown that experience of racial discrimination is a risk factor for the development of problem gambling. Gambling may be a coping response for Aboriginal people, used to escape the negative emotions that result from experiences of racism.

Addressing gambling harm in Aboriginal communities

Worldwide, approaches to reducing harmful gambling in Aboriginal communities are needed. Successful approaches will likely require addressing the underlying social determinants of problem gambling, which include disadvantage, discrimination and access to services. Integration with broader approaches addressing the social determinants of health in Aboriginal communities is vital.

Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, including the Aboriginal Gambler's Help services in Victoria, are active in developing approaches to address social and emotional wellbeing. Approaches include traditional healing, which promotes resilience and reduces risk of harm, trauma-informed practice and narrative therapy.

In this edition of Inside gambling, Ashley Gordon, head of NSW Aboriginal Safe Gambling Services, writes about the normalisation of gambling in Australian Aboriginal communities and the importance of community consultation and culturally appropriate services in addressing gambling harm. Read Why are we not talking about gambling?

Further reading

For more information on the research about gambling in Aboriginal communities in Australia and overseas, see:

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