L-R: Dr Hannah Pitt, Dr Simone McCarthy

Every year, Gambling Harm Awareness week encourages the Victorian community to talk about the impact of gambling related harm on individuals, families, and communities. This year’s theme is ‘Could gambling be affecting your wellbeing?’, following on from the 2021 theme of ‘Talk, Share, Support’, which encouraged people to engage with their local community about why gambling harm matters. Every year, we talk about the issues. And every year, nothing changes.

These types of ‘responsible gambling’ events are common across the world. They direct attention towards individuals, and away from the root cause of gambling harm: the gambling industry and the light touch regulatory approach from governments that has allowed the industry (and its advertising) to thrive. We know that gambling causes harm to our communities. So shouldn’t we demand that it is time to make a shift from simply talking about gambling harm, to taking comprehensive action to prevent it?

Even outside the much publicised casino fiascos, gambling products have become embedded and normalised in our communities. Poker machines have become central to the profits of many community pubs and hotels, with over $6 million lost to these machines every day in Victoria. Imagine that money going back into the pockets of households and local businesses. Lotteries and scratchies are available in most shopping strips. Newer forms of online gambling and their excessive promotions now dominate Australian sports. While some of these products are more harmful than others, none are harm free.

The negative impacts of gambling products are linked to some of our most pressing health and social issues, including mental ill-health, family violence, poverty, homelessness, and suicide. Governments are well aware of these issues. Yet they have largely focused on soft responses, including encouraging individuals to set monetary limits and take a break when they feel that they have gambled too much, instead of placing the primary onus where it belongs: on the gambling industry.

These approaches have done little to reduce the devastating impact of these products on individuals, families and communities. Gambling is one of the only health issues in Victoria that is not dealt with by our Department of Health. The strong public health approaches that we have seen governments implement in response to harmful products like alcohol and tobacco are almost non-existent in gambling.

Without strong regulatory structures designed to protect the public from harm, the gambling industry has been allowed to develop a sophisticated range of novel products and promotions to attract new customers. While much of the focus has been on the impact of these strategies on young men, there is evidence that gambling products and promotions are increasingly appealing to and normalising gambling for women.

Saturation of advertising on television and in sport means that children as young as eight can name gambling brands, recite the slogans and plotlines of gambling ads, and know the deals that companies offer. Three quarters of young people in our research think that gambling is a normal part of sport. As one eleven-year-old told us “When kids get to 18, they will want to bet all the time”.

So how can we move from awareness raising to action on gambling harm? The first step is to implement strong, legislated restrictions on all forms of marketing for gambling products. We must end the exposure of young people and other at-risk groups to a constant stream of advertising designed to present gambling as an exciting, desirable and easily accessible form of entertainment. This includes untangling the relationship between gambling and sport. Too many sporting codes are prepared to accept the money offered by the gambling industry and so too become part of the problem. We must also take action on the accessibility of gambling products, including reducing the opening hours of gambling venues. Finally, we should move away from the highly critiqued “gamble responsibly” refrain, towards clear, research-based messages about the risks and harms associated with gambling products.

Governments need to listen to communities, who are impacted by the harms firsthand, rather than letting those with vested interests in gambling dominate policy responses. Achieving these reforms will take time and there will clearly be resistance from the gambling industry and those profiting from the industry. But young people, parents, people with lived experience, and the community know that we need firm action, not soft-touch approaches that effectively endorse the harms that are increasingly caused by a predatory industry.

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Gamblers Help 1800 858 858

Dr Hannah Pitt and Dr Simone McCarthy are members of IHT’s Determinants of Health research domain. 

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