Australia – Are we really a nation of gamblers

Nation of gamblers

The shutdown of gambling venues due to Covid-19 may have driven people at-risk of addiction to increased online gambling and experience harm, although for others it may have created a relief from the constant access of problematic pokies.

Australia - Are we really a nation of gamblers
Sally Gainsbury and Alex Blaszczynski *

As venues begin to reopen and sporting events resume, governments and stakeholders need to enact strategies to assist people to take control of their gambling now, to avoid severe harms in the future.
For several months Australia’s 4,995 gambling venues housing around a total of 196,177 EGMs were shut, along keno and retail betting with few sporting matches to bet on in response to the coronavirus shutdown measures. This resulted in an unprecedented and unique reduction in accessibility of gambling in Australian history.

Gambling problems are often driven by a desire to escape stress and unpleasant emotions. Gambling problems are high among people experiencing depression and anxiety and those socially isolated. Financial hardship is strongly related to gambling problems and psychological distress.

Past financial crises such as the Icelandic banking collapse and major recessions show that gambling is highest among those who are experiencing the greatest financial hardship. Gambling offers hope for a change in lifestyle; however, for most the change is associated with greater difficulties caused by unaffordable expenditure.

Stimulus packages, although important and well-intended, can add to the risk of excessive gambling. The 2008-2009 Australian economic stimulus packages designed to maintain consumer spending were subsequently colloquially referred to as the “Pokies and Plasma payouts”. Similarly, claims have been made that early withdrawals of superannuation intended to allow financial relief during Covid-19 were related to increased gambling.

There is evidence that Australians have increased their online gambling during the shutdown. One estimate using banking data found that online gambling increased 5 percent in April 2020 (along with other Internet activity such as Netflix).

Another spend tracker reported that online gambling was 71 percent higher than normal at the beginning of April, but dropped to 60 percent higher towards the end, suggesting that initial engagement waned. Despite fewer races, racing turnover significantly increased.

Tracking offshore gambling is difficult so there is currently limited evidence on whether this has increased. Despite concerns that pokies players would all turn to online gambling, this has not materialised in the two decades of online gambling availability. Gambling on offshores sites is associated with higher rates of gambling problems, but occurs very infrequently. It is relatively unlikely that regular pokies gamblers who are more likely to be older (24 percent >65 years) are suddenly shifting to gamble on online casino sites.

Overall changes in gambling are not as important to monitor as understanding which population cohorts are gambling. Research from Canada and Sweden suggests that, unsurprisingly, increases in gambling are more common among regular gamblers and those with problems. Gambling to cope with negative experiences is likely to be highly problematic and if sustained over time can lead to severe harms for individuals, and those around them.

Fortunately, gambling treatment services have remained in operation. For example, at the University of Sydney Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic, demand for services from clients remains high and clinicians are treating clients using videoconferencing.

The experience reported by many clients seen seeking treatment at the Clinic is that the shutdown has brought much relief and provided opportunities to take back control over their gambling. Treatment attendance rates are the highest they have ever been, demonstrating the strong demand for video-therapy and need for expanded funding for this.

However, intake from new clients initially declined, which is consistent with a 50 percent reduction in calls to the national gambling telephone. Unfortunately, for many with gambling problems, taking a break is not sufficient to resolve these. Without active efforts to address the underlying issues, it is highly likely that when society reopens, new ‘habits’ developed during shutdown will make way for a resumption of behavioural patterns including gambling, that have been entrenched over much longer time frames.

This is now a critical time as state governments deprived of gambling revenue may look to expand opportunities for gambling where possible – this is the ideal time to conduct research to understand the relative influence of environmental vs. personal factors on gambling and harms. If the restriction on gambling persists over the longer-term or permanently, it remains to be determined if there will be a transition to online gambling on local regulated and international regulated and unregulated sites.

Unintended consequences may include exposure to greater levels of risk for community members engaged in unregulated sites, or illegal gambling on pokies as occurred in New South Wales in the 1950’s.

It is essential that governments and stakeholders, including the gambling industry, act to reduce gambling harms. Thousands of gambling-venue employees have been stood down. During this period of suspension, steps could be taken utilise this downtime to retrain and upskill staff in learning more about gambling problems and how individuals at-risk of harm can be identified and appropriate staff-customer interactions can be affected.

Venue responsible gambling managers and machine manufacturers could be working with researchers and policy makers to design, test, and have new practices implemented as venues reopen to offer a safer gambling environment.

Executives, often too busy to fit consumer protection training into their schedules, could be attending interactive online learning sessions with experts to enhance their understanding of gambling harms, enabling consumer protection strategies going forward to be driven from the top down.

Initial reports from NSW, one of the first states to open gambling venues, saw an increase in gaming machine turnover compared to the same period the year before. It will be critical to closely examine whether people resume gambling habits and for those with gambling problems, whether the enforced break has provided enough momentum towards a sustainable recovery.

Understanding the factors and motivation that enable some gamblers to regain control compared to those that lead others to resume past habitual behaviours can contribute to the development of more effective interventions and safer gambling environments.

* Associate Professor Sally Gainsbury and Professor Alex Blaszczynski are Co-Directors of the University of Sydney Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic within the Brain and Mind Centre and School of Psychology and members of the Technology Addiction Team.