The impact of a pandemic on gambling in Australia
by Simone McCarthy
Abstract: The world post COVID-19 will look vastly different to pre COVID-19 but somehow the gambling industry remains on top. As we enter economic instability, a 67% rise in online gambling shows that Australians are vulnerable to the tactics of the gambling industry.
COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to see what happens when we no longer have poker machines in Australia. I rejoiced when the pubs, clubs and casinos closed down. The fact that no machines were taking money in Australia painted an idealistic world in which I’ve been postulating while writing my PhD thesis. Poker machines are the most harmful gambling product in Australia, and in such a critical, anxiety-inducing, economically fragile time, it is a relief to see that money will stay out of addictive machines and remain in the pockets of hard working Australians [Australian Associated Press 2020]. Or so I thought.
Despite restrictions put in place to close down the operation of poker machines, the gambling industry has not hesitated to move their customer base online. Online gambling increased by 67% in the first week since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place and was the number one category in consumer spending. This data indicates that online gambling is more essential than food delivery and home improvement to Australians during these unusual times [Thompson 2020]. On top of this, new research shows many Australians are withdrawing superannuation, which was meant to provide financial relief, and spending it on gambling [Wade 2020]. This suggests that while restrictions have limited gambling opportunities, the gambling industry may be utilising the current crisis to target new online customers who have a lot of time on their hands and who are financially vulnerable. This is concerning given that Australians could blow much needed funds on gambling, which may impact the way individuals, and we as a nation, economically and mentally bounce back from the repercussions of COVID-19 [Shying 2020].
This means that removing harmful poker machines during vulnerable times doesn’t go far enough. Without comprehensive regulation to protect individuals from the harms associated with all types of gambling, the gambling industry will always win. In these unprecedented times of hardship for most Australians, it is concerning that no restrictions have been placed on online gambling [Livingstone & Thomas 2020]. Without government restrictions on online gambling, the gambling industry will continue to target Australians who will be left in an even more vulnerable position post COVID-19. I hope that governments’ new understanding of the importance of public health prevention will present an opportunity for Australia to reconsider its relationship with gambling and protect Australia from the harms of gambling.
Australian Associated Press 2020, ‘Australian punters have saved $1.5BILLION by not gambling on pokie machines in the last month‘, Daily Mail Australia
Livingstone, C & Thomas, S 2020, ‘With pokies shut down, coronavirus stress could drive more people to reckless online gambling‘, The Conversation
Shying, O 2020, ‘Coronavirus leads to sharp rise in online gambling‘, Geelong Advertiser [subscriber-only access]
Thompson, A 2020, ‘Alarming’ rise in online gambling has experts worried‘, Sydney Morning Herald
Wade, M 2020, ‘Sex and super: how men spend their nest-egg withdrawals differently to women‘, Sydney Morning Herald
Simone is a PhD candidate in Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development and the Institute for Health Transformation’s Determinants of Health research domain, working in the area of commercial determinants of health. Her research focuses on women’s lived experience of gambling-related harm and the practical and political responses to addressing women’s vulnerabilities to gambling harm through a gendered perspective.