Edition #4: Gambling harm

Man in bed at night looking at mobile phone screen.
Man in bed at night looking at mobile phone screen.
Photo: iStock

In the know

Gambling is like rust, it never sleeps

After nearly three decades in the field, New Zealand's leading thinker on mental health, gambling and addiction says access and exposure are key contributors to gambling harm.

Auckland University of Technology Professor, Max Abbott says limiting access to gambling and reducing gambling advertising will have the greatest impact.

'Pokies are still number one in terms of harm, so reducing the density of pokies should be considered.

'But we also need to target prevention work on cultures and groups with high-risk factors and curb online sports betting marketing to make a real difference in the long term,' he says.

The eminent researcher says secondary prevention programs are also important with two-thirds of people who are currently categorised as 'problem gamblers' having relapsed after a period of recovery.

Max says accessibility and visibility are the biggest issues.

'Living in close proximity to a venue presents the strongest risk of relapse for someone struggling with gambling problems.

'Gambling is like rust, it never sleeps, even more so now with the internet, and for those who are vulnerable it is a huge issue,' he says.

It all changed in the 80s

Victoria and New Zealand have trodden similar pathways in the recent past with huge changes to the gambling environment happening in the 1970s and 1980s.

Australia's first casino, Hobart's Wrest Point, opened in 1973 and a dozen have been built in the other states since. Pokies were first legalised in New South Wales in 1956, followed by the Australian Capital Territory in 1976. Victoria and the other Australian states and territories, excluding Western Australia, followed in the 80s and 90s.

Max says the increase in opportunities to gamble led to an increase in problem gambling almost immediately.

'I was working in alcohol at the time and completing a doctorate in psychology, but here was this relatively new and emerging problem, which led to the first gamblers' help group in New Zealand,' he says.

Early efforts to raise awareness about the risks of gambling were challenged by the industry, who rejected attempts to limit growth or put harm minimisation measures in place.

'So we did the first national prevalence study in the world to quantify current gambling harm, and they couldn't argue with that. This led to funding in 1993 for New Zealand's first national hotline and clinic to treat gamblers,' he says.

'We did the first national prevalence study in the world to quantify current gambling harm, and they couldn't argue with that.'

Max Abbott, Auckland University of Technology

'Initially it showed betting on the horses was the biggest problem, but this quickly moved to pokies when they really took off.

'Pokies are still number one in terms of harm, but unless controls are put in place over sports betting, we see this as an emerging issue,' he says.

Gambling as inherent to culture is a myth

Max says gambling being accepted as an inherent part of the Australian culture is nothing more than a social construct which normalises gambling.

'It's a myth, but it's been a very effective one for the industry with gambling being promoted as intrinsic to our psyche.

In reality, there was a period in the early 1900s when there was almost abolition, followed by a long period when only a few people gambled regularly.

'Promoting Australians and New Zealanders as big gamblers has become a self-fulfilling prophecy where people think everyone is doing it,' he says.

Max says the myth has led to Australians now being the highest spenders on gambling per capita in the world, which is further feeding the myth.  

'Gambling being accepted as an inherent part of the Australian culture is nothing more than a social construct which normalises gambling.'

Max Abbott, Auckland University of Technology

Population studies over the past two decades have consistently shown that while 70 to 80 per cent of Australians gamble at least once a year, only 15 per cent are regular gamblers when you exclude lotteries and scratch tickets.

The professor says it's those regular gamblers, especially those playing the pokies and betting on the horses, who are most at risk.

He says the gambling industry needs to understand gambling harm has the potential to damage them considerably if they don't do more.

'Many of the industry-backed harm minimisation measures are window dressing and have very little impact.

'If industry don't do more, there is likely to be more regulation as governments respond to the increasing evidence around the impact of gambling on the community,' he says.

Professor Max Abbott was recognised as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2016 New Year's Day Honours for services to health, science and education. Professor Abbott is internationally recognised for his leadership and guidance on major prevalence and longitudinal studies that have contributed enormously to understanding of gambling behaviour and trends.

Max Abbott
Max Abbott

Professor Max Abbott is the dean and pro-vice-chancellor (North Campus) at Auckland University of Technology. He is also co-director of the National Institute for Public Health and Mental Health Research as well as director of the Gambling and Addictions Research Centre, which was established within the institute in 2003.

Michelle Bryne
Michelle Bryne

Michelle Bryne thinks the world is a pretty great place and there's always wine and chocolate when it's not. Michelle is a professional communicator who thinks random capitalisation is second only to inappropriate apostrophe placement as a crime against grammar.

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