CHARLES LIVINGSTONE. Pokies, sport and racing harm 41% of monthly gamblers: survey

For the first time, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey has turned its attention to gambling, revealing that around 1.4 million Australians are directly harmed by the activity.

What did HILDA find?

Australian adults spend $A1,240 on gambling per year. This is well above global averages, and nearly twice as much as the next country on the list.

HILDA shows most Australians are not very regular gamblers. About 39.1% of Australians typically gamble on a monthly basis. Most of them buy lottery products.

However, for those who do engage with more harmful gambling products, such as poker machines and wagering, the results are troubling. HILDA confirms that rates of harm among people gambling monthly on specific harmful products are much higher than for more benign lottery products.

Among the overall population, HILDA data suggest that about 1.1% of the adult population – about 200,000 people – score eight or more on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (a screening tool for gambling problems). These people are generally categorised in Australia as “problem gamblers”.

HILDA’s estimates are higher than most recent prevalence studies, which use telephone interviews. HILDA uses face-to-face interviews involving quite sophisticated interviewing techniques. It’s thus likely to be more reliable than other prevalence studies.

Regardless, new evidence suggests that problem gambling is not limited to those who score eight or more on the Problem Gambling Severity Index. In total, more harm accrues to people in the “moderate” and “low” risk groups. That’s because there are many more people in those groups, and all experience some degree of harm.

The HILDA survey shows that another 8% of the Australian population experience some harm from gambling.

For each “problem gambler”, six other people are affected. For each “moderate risk” gambler, about three others are affected. And for each “low risk” gambler, an additional person is affected.

If these estimates are applied to the HILDA data, this suggests gambling adversely affects more than 3.3 million Australians, in addition to the 1.4 million directly affected.

The most harmful forms of gambling for monthly gamblers are poker, casino games and private betting. However, these activities are rare. Just 1% or so of the population typically gamble in these ways monthly. Thus the estimates of the harm incurred by these types of gambling are unreliable, although certainly high.

Gambling on lotteries is clearly a much less risky pastime. Those who typically gamble on lotteries monthly have a “problem gambler” rate only marginally higher than the overall population (1.2%), and 86.8% experience no gambling harms. Harm to this group may accrue from other forms of gambling rather than from lotteries.

Of those who typically use poker machines monthly, however, estimates are more robust. Among the 8% of adults who typically use pokies once a month or more, 6.2% are categorised as “problem gamblers”, and another 35.3% experience some level of harm.

About 3% of the adult population typically bet on sports monthly. This group has a “problem gambler” rate of 6.7%, along with another 34.2% who experience some level of harm. A similar pattern emerges with horse or dog wagering. Of this group, 5.2% are serious problem gamblers and 35.9% are harmed to some extent.

Thus, of monthly pokie users, 41.5% experience at least some harm. For those who bet on sports, it’s 40.9%. And for those who bet on racing, 41.1% experience harm.

HILDA and pokies

HILDA also asked people about their enjoyment of life. The results demonstrate that those experiencing gambling harm generally have a lower average score for this than those who don’t. Enjoyment of life for those scoring eight or more on the Problem Gambling Severity Index is, unsurprisingly, below those in other categories.

This is an important finding. Pokies in particular are concentrated in areas of stress – places where people are socioeconomically disadvantaged or experiencing stress of other kinds.

For example, outer-suburban areas often have a significant concentration of pokies and high losses. People in these suburbs are not necessarily socioeconomically disadvantaged. They may, however, experience stress from such phenomena as long travel times, the difficulties of managing two-income families, significant mortgages, and childcare issues.

It is probable that pokies are concentrated in stressed areas because they provide some relief for people living under difficult or stressful circumstances. HILDA provides some support for this view.

Causality for reduced enjoyment of life and gambling harm may be difficult to disentangle. But as HILDA progresses, we can expect to see a finer-grained view of gambling harm and its demographic distribution. This will provide a much-improved tool for regulators and policymakers to consider how to reduce harm.

The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation recently rejected an application for additional pokies in a southeast Melbourne local government area. It did this in substantial part because evidence demonstrated a relationship between intimate partner violence and pokie concentration: the more spent on pokies, the greater the incidence of such violence.

Using data to inform decisions

Because HILDA collects data across multiple domains, it will allow researchers to examine the correlates of gambling, and explore how these relate to gambling behaviour and harms.

The reverse of this is also true. Gambling has impacts on many aspects of life – including employment, income and wealth.

The HILDA report provides a summary of key findings. However, continuing to ask about gambling over time will allow a better understanding of how people engage and disengage with gambling activities. It will also support a better understanding of how, and in what circumstances, gambling harm accrues.

As better and more detailed data are collected, regulatory decision-making and policy development can be significantly enhanced.

We now have a better understanding of how much harm gambling causes. HILDA can improve our understanding of where this is concentrated, what forms are most likely to cause it, and how it can be prevented or minimised.

Such a mainstreaming of gambling data collection will help maximise the benefits that gambling may provide, while minimising the harms. That represents a significant development.

Charles Livingstone is a Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University

This article first appeared in The Conversation. 

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