Edition #8: Early signs of harm from gambling

Hand drawn pen sketched image of a close-up of lines on a poker machine. Top line images are a cup, the letter K, a sad face, a thumbs-down symbol and a crown. The line underneath has a down arrow next to a dollar sign, a sad face, star, upside-down piggy bank and an uneven octagon. Two buttons can be seen underneath these lines, being
Hand drawn pen sketched image of a close-up of lines on a poker machine. Top line images are a cup, the letter K, a sad face, a thumbs-down symbol and a crown. The line underneath has a down arrow next to a dollar sign, a sad face, star, upside-down piggy bank and an uneven octagon. Two buttons can be seen underneath these lines, being
Illustration: Michael Weldon

When risk becomes harm: low-risk and moderate-risk gambling

A new foundation background paper – Hidden harm: low-risk and moderate-risk gambling – looks at research on harm experienced by people who don’t have serious gambling problems but are considered at risk of developing them.

The evidence is striking: 85 per cent of harm from gambling in Victoria is from low-risk and moderate-risk gambling*. While people with severe gambling problems suffer significantly more, individually, than those with fewer problems, the number of people experiencing less serious harm is much greater.

85 per cent of harm from gambling in Victoria is from low-risk and moderate-risk gambling.

The prevalence of low-risk gambling is increasing. Between 2008 and 2014, there was a 56 per cent increase in the proportion of Victorians engaged in low-risk gambling. What should also be of interest is that moderate-risk gamblers are the most likely to transition to problem gambling. The paper argues that these two groups should be specifically targeted to prevent problem gambling and reduce harm.

Low-risk and moderate-risk gamblers are already experiencing harm

The foundation’s 2016 study Assessing gambling-related harm in Victoria found that the level of harm from low-risk gambling is similar to living with a moderate anxiety disorder, while the level of harm from moderate-risk gambling is similar to living with moderate alcohol-use disorder.

Common types of harm experienced by both low-risk and moderate-risk gamblers include:

  • less spending on recreational activities
  • a reduction in savings and spending money
  • increased alcohol consumption
  • feelings of regret.

Moderate-risk gamblers are also more likely to spend less time with people they care about and may even experience more severe risks such as spending less on essential items and feelings of isolation.

Anna Bardsley, a community educator with ReSPIN Gambling Awareness Speakers Bureau, regularly shares her experience of gambling harm with community audiences. She says the shame attached to gambling is a barrier to seeking help. ‘Shame drags you back to gambling and you feel more shame. You can’t seek help because you feel ashamed. So, you go round and round in this diabolical circle.’

Gambling risk and gambling harm exist on a continuum

The paper finds that low-risk and moderate-risk gambling exist on a continuum between non-problem gambling and problem gambling. As gambling risk increases, so do problematic behaviour, harm and other health conditions. Given this continuum, it may be more beneficial to focus on harm reduction at all levels, rather than concentrating on those experiencing severe harm.

‘Shame drags you back to gambling and you feel more shame.’

Anna Bardsley, ReSPIN

However, low-risk and moderate-risk gamblers need to be approached quite separately from those with serious gambling problems. Many people falling within these classifications dismiss social marketing campaigns about severe gambling harm as they don’t identify with the people represented. Because of the stigma associated with problem gambling, they are likely to see their behaviour as ‘controlled’ compared to the stereotype of ‘irresponsible’ gambling.

According to Rosa Billi, the foundation’s head of research and evaluation, part of the difficulty in getting low-risk and moderate-risk gamblers to equate their experience with gambling harm is that the concept itself is relatively recent.

‘Most people who gamble are accustomed to media and campaigns targeting the more severe end of the spectrum of gamblers. They equate problem gambling with losing your house or your partner.’

As gambling risk increases, so do problematic behaviour, harm and other health conditions.

Connecting with low-risk and moderate-risk gamblers relies on educating the community to recognise that harm may occur earlier than they realise.

Campaigns need to focus on modifying behaviour

While most low-risk and moderate-risk gamblers are aware of help services available, they are unlikely to access even self-help options. The paper recommends strategies to encourage low-risk and moderate-risk gamblers to modify their behaviour without seeking external help. For instance, campaigns encouraging moderate-risk gamblers to connect the earlier signs of gambling harm with their own experience, may be useful. For low-risk gamblers and the general community, tips to avoid gambling harm may be effective.

Campaigns encouraging moderate-risk gamblers to connect the earlier signs of gambling harm with their own experience, may be useful.

‘We saw it as completely innocent,’ Anna Bardsley says of playing the pokies with her girlfriends. However, tragedy and financial difficulties made Anna vulnerable. Her descent into severe gambling harm began when she played the pokies alone after a fight with her then-husband. ‘That was the first time I went on my own, sat down at a machine, put some money in and zoned out.’

Now educating others about gambling harm, Anna has this advice: ‘If you’re disconnecting from yourself and those around you, and gambling is present, gambling is causing that.’

Rosa hopes the new background paper will add to the baseline level of knowledge in the community about gambling harm. ‘You don’t have to lose your health, your relationship and your house to be harmed. You can be harmed at much lower levels.’

See the foundation's latest social marketing campaign about harm from gambling starting earlier than you think.

Download the paper: Hidden harm: Low-risk and moderate-risk gambling (PDF - 1130.3 KB)

Download the infographic: Low-risk and moderate-risk gambling: the facts (PDF - 528.5 KB)

View video transcript

* The categories for risk of gambling harm used in the paper are based on the Problem Gambling Severity Index. This is a questionnaire that helps us estimate a person’s risk of developing a gambling problem and, therefore, their risk of experiencing harm as a result. The categories are: non-problem gambler, low-risk gambler, moderate-risk gambler and problem gambler. For more about these categories, see the Fact sheet 2: Categories for risk of gambling harm (PDF - 310.7 KB) from the Study of gambling and health in Victoria.

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