Mike Daube, photo: Daniel Wilkins
Many people hold a comfortable view that Australia's gambling problem is essentially about just a few gamblers at the extreme end of the scale. The only people significantly affected are those gamblers and we can address the problem through offering treatment. For the rest, voluntary self-regulation of advertising and industry-designed 'gamble responsibly' messages will suffice.
In stark contrast, the new report on assessing gambling-related harm in Victoria shows clearly that gambling is a major health and social problem for both individuals and communities. It directly affects large numbers of gamblers – well beyond the 'problem gambler' tip of the iceberg. It also causes substantial harm and suffering to others, to the extent that 'aggregate harms accruing to non-problem gamblers exceed those occurring to problem gamblers by about six to one'.
The report further shows that focusing only on problem gamblers leaves the vast majority of gamblers and others with a false sense of security.
As the study indicates, gambling contributes to some of our most pressing social concerns, including criminality, family violence, relationship breakdown and serious mental health problems. This is not an issue to be addressed simply with a few 'gamble responsibly' statements.
Parallels with tobacco, alcohol and obesity
There is nothing new about approaches that seek to focus only on 'problem' individuals or personal responsibility. Tobacco and alcohol have long been subject to similar distraction strategies. It is clearly in the gambling industry's interests to imply that gambling problems are almost entirely the preserve of a few individuals – just as tobacco companies used to talk about 'excessive smoking', and alcohol industry groups have implied that alcohol problems are essentially limited to a few drunks.
This is not an issue to be addressed simply with a few 'gamble responsibly' statements.
Of course, there are differences. But we can still learn from experience gained in these areas. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report on obesity points to the importance of comprehensive approaches, well-implemented policies, staying in there for the long haul, and, crucially, learning from areas such as tobacco and alcohol. The McKinsey report shows compellingly that rather than going through decades of delay, we should work from 'logic based on parallel evidence'. The same should apply to gambling.
What are the key lessons we can learn from these other areas?
Make the community aware of the harms. We cannot expect to see appropriate responses by either individuals or decision-makers while there is little understanding of the magnitude of social and health harms related to gambling.
A public health approach
Addressing a problem of this nature entails policies and programs that will bring maximum benefit to the community as a whole, while also recognising the needs of individuals.
Focus on comprehensive policies to:
- make products safer and significantly reduce the marketing of those products
- limit numbers and intensity of poker machines and protect our most vulnerable communities from being targeted
- independently administer curbs on all forms of promotion, including conventional media, sports sponsorship and social media
- provide research-based, adequately funded public education
- support those who experience gambling harm.
Protection from vested interests
Following best practise in any area where companies have a clear, vested interest in maximum possible use of a product, policy development and implementation should be protected from the influence of the gambling industry.
Independence in informing and educating
Any warning information and education programs should be research-based, and developed and implemented independently of any involvement by gambling industry groups or those they fund.
While demand for action is growing, the message must be louder and clearer
The powerful and well-connected gambling industry has also learned from the experience of tobacco and other areas. Gambling companies will continue to promote pre-emptive approaches, including focusing on problem gamblers, 'responsibility' education, soft warnings, advertising self-regulation and participation in policy-making processes. Add to the mix: heavy lobbying and public relations activities.
Focusing only on problem gamblers leaves the vast majority of gamblers and others with a false sense of security.
It is noteworthy that revenue from harmful products has not dissuaded Australia from implementing the world's most effective policies to reduce smoking. I hope that this may also happen with gambling.
It is encouraging that many politicians, community leaders, sporting personalities and others have already spoken about the need for action, often triggered by either the experience of individuals close to them or sheer distaste at the way in which gambling is now so aggressively promoted to adults and children alike.
The foundation is to be congratulated on commissioning a report that so clearly sets out the extent and consequences of gambling problems in Victoria.
This report can play a vital role in informing the public and policy makers that gambling is no small problem, but is indeed 'a social issue on a similar order of magnitude to major depressive disorder and alcohol misuse and dependence'. This is a message that needs to be heard loud and clear and will require determined action in the face of inevitable resistance from vested interests.
The 'gambling harm' edition
This fourth edition of Inside gamblingexplores how gambling can harm individuals and communities. We look not just at the crisis end of gambling, but also at the smaller harms that can erode health and wellbeing, and, in combination and over time, lead to serious problems.
Chandana tells of how a new start in Australia quickly became a nightmare when gambling got involved.
Leading psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg explains why boys are susceptible to the siren song of online and offline gambling and what we can do about it.
Gambling counsellor Jodi Clarke reflects on helping family members and friends of people with gambling problems.
Max Abbott, New Zealand's leading thinker on mental health, gambling and addiction, tells Michelle Bryne gambling is like rust, it never sleeps.
Read these stories and many more for a detailed and insightful examination of gambling harm, from personal experiences to public health perspectives.