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Australians taking a gamble during lockdowns

5 December 2021

Australians taking a gamble during lockdowns

Working group formed to combat gambling harm.

Words Jessica Morris

Australians have found different ways to cope through COVID-19 lockdowns. While many have been positive, there has been a worrying increase in the number of people gambling.

While playing the pokies or buying a lotto ticket has become part of our culture, online gambling has also become an insidious problem as people try to ‘escape reality’ while sitting on their couch at home.

The ease of signing up for online gambling is thought to be behind the increase in people gambling, and it’s no wonder an estimated 50 per cent of Australians regularly gamble when all you need is a mobile phone, a betting app, and a credit card.

In 2018-19, it is estimated Australians lost $24 billion in gambling, which doesn’t include consequences such as homelessness and relationship breakdown.

“I’ve seen first-hand the harm that gambling can cause, and it’s devastating,” says Major Claire Emerton, Salvos officer (pastor) in Melbourne. “I’ve seen gambling drive people to the brink of suicide because it can impact every area of their life.

“As a student social worker and a Salvos officer, my eyes were opened to the nature of the gambling industry and that it’s quite predatory. With poker machines, you’re losing money, but the machine plays upbeat music that tells you you’re near a win. That triggers a dopamine release and can create an addiction.”

Harmful consequences

‘Gambling harm’ is defined as any negative consequence caused or made worse by gambling, and Claire’s passion for combating this comes from frontline experience.

Through her work with the Salvos Moneycare, Domestic and Family Violence, and Doorways (emergency relief) teams to support everyday Australians, she observed that gambling harm was intrinsically linked to financial stress and poverty, homelessness, relationship breakdown, family violence, addiction, and mental health issues.

Claire was motivated to co-create The Salvation Army’s first Gambling Harm Working Group. Still in its early stages, it exists to bring awareness to the issue, provide training, act as a sounding board for officers and employees, and create systemic change through policy.

Changing our language

The first step in creating change involves changing our language, according to Jeffrey Milne, Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor for the Salvos Policy Research and Social Justice Department.

“People and policy commonly refer to ‘problem gambling services’ and say that people are ‘problem gamblers’, but that language has now changed. We call it responding to gambling harm or people experiencing gambling harm issues,” he says.

Claire adds, “It highlights that the ‘problem’ is broader than the gambler, including predatory products and normalisation of gambling culture in Australia, and in government policy. Therefore, responsibility needs to be put on products, the industry, and government to create an environment where harm doesn’t flourish.”   

Over the past year, Jeffrey and his fellow policy advisor, Alejandro Navarrete, have developed three major submissions to the federal and state governments related to gambling harm.

Their expertise in the area has given the Salvos a voice in the Royal Commission into the Casino Operator and Licence, the Gaming Control Amendment (Future Gaming Market) Bill 2021 in Tasmania, and the Interactive Gambling Amendment (Prohibition on Credit Card Use) Bill 2020, regarding the prohibition of credit card use for online gambling.

“The figures show that the pandemic has made an impact on gambling behaviour,” says Alejandro. A survey undertaken by the Australian Gambling Research Centre showed that “even with limited access to venues, overall, participants gambled more often during COVID-19. The proportion who gambled four or more times a week increased from 23 per cent to 32 per cent [between June and July 2020]."

Furthermore, the survey also showed that men aged 18-34 years increased their frequency and monthly spending on gambling from $687 to $1075.

Live, love and fight

Given that state governments made a combined total of $6.5 billion revenue from gambling in 2018-19 – before we witnessed the spike in online gambling due to COVID-19 – the work of the policy team has given the Gambling Harm Working Group extra clout as they meet with politicians seeking to balance power with the common good.

Major Brad Watson, Head of Community Engagement based in Tasmania, is another member of the Gambling Harm Group and is advocating around recent legislation in Tasmania – the Future Gaming Market Project.

For Brad and the rest of the Gambling Harm Working Group, this work goes hand in hand with The Salvation Army’s mission to live, love, and fight alongside all people.

“As Salvos, it’s essential we talk about gambling harm because we’re talking about people who are affected by an industry that deliberately preys on people and creates mechanisms to entrap, addict, and fleece people,” says Brad.

“Our role is to live with, love and fight for these people where they may not be able to fight for themselves – whether it is through the financial counselling service, policy and advocacy, financial assistance, or helping find a safe place for their family. That, of course, is the love of Jesus in action.”

Shared responsibility

We all have a role to play in breaking the stigma that surrounds gambling harm. Because it’s not all winners and grinners like gambling is portrayed on the ads.

“The more that we can raise awareness about how predatory the gambling industry is, and how intertwined it is in terms of government funding and reliance, the more we can show that gambling isn’t about personal weakness. [We can show] they’ve actually been caught in this big predatory machine, and knowing that can begin to break down the stigma.”

Contact Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858.



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