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Gambling and tobacco a tale of two ‘poisons’. The lessons we must learn to tame ‘big gambling’

Rev Tim Costello

23 June 2023

Gambling is normalised and celebrated which has led to the highest levels of gambling losses per capita in the world – 40 per cent higher for poker machines and 20 per cent higher for online gambling – well ahead of any other country.

I have not met a parent who is not horrified by the rampant use of vaping among our young people.

I have not met a parent who is not horrified by the rampant use of gambling apps among our young people.

And yet while the government launches a crackdown on vaping – the next chapter of its strict regulation of ‘big tobacco’ – there is still no action to curb gambling harm, a product that rips $25 billion out of our communities every year and causes untold harm.

The parallels with big tobacco and gambling are chilling. A long-time anti-tobacco campaigner, Emeritus Professor Mike Daube, AO from Curtin University, makes a compelling comparison of big tobacco and the gambling industry.

They are both predatory industries – industries that knowingly sell harmful products. They invest massive sums to sell and market addictive products.

They engage with governments to drive the policy agenda, they are run by people who know exactly how much harm their products cause. They delay, ignore, bypass and workaround regulations to continue harmful practices, and they invoke similar arguments in their defence.

Most disturbingly both tobacco and gambling companies invest huge sums to develop new, addictive products, designed to get young people hooked.

A generation ago we had Benson and Hedges Cricket, the Rothmans medal for the NRL’s best and fairest and Paul Hogan was all over our televisions encouraging us ‘Anyhow. Have a Winfield’.

In 1994, the executives of seven of the world’s largest tobacco companies appeared before the US Congress and infamously declared that nicotine was not addictive.

History subsequently shows they were lying, their own research revealed how addictive tobacco was, but they buried the findings.

As a society we were far too naïve, far too trusting and far too late in realising and then challenging the lies of big tobacco. So too were our legislators. Many people died and suffered as a consequence.

Eventually, the backlash against tobacco, the public education on its harms and the straight jacket of regulation around its promotion was comprehensive. Australia became a world leader in many aspects on the war of tobacco.

We successfully applied a public health approach, banned advertising, introduced plain-paper packaging and funded research and public education. Eventually the number of people smoking dramatically reduced and countless lives have been saved as a result.

When we look at gambling harm today and the virtually unlimited and unrestricted marketing of gambling, it is as if we have learnt nothing from history.

Australia is in the grip of a gambling epidemic. It damages the lives of millions of people and yet our political leaders continue to believe the lies of the industry that gambling is harmless entertainment.

Gambling is normalised and celebrated which has led to the highest levels of gambling losses per capita in the world – 40% higher for poker machines and 20% higher for online gambling – well ahead of any other country.

Unlike smoking, gambling is not treated as a public health issue. Not one health department official in governments across Australia works to prevent gambling harm or ensuring people can get access to the treatment they may need.

Across Australia there are few support services for those experiencing gambling harm or for those seeking help for someone else’s gambling. The support services that are available are opaque and often inadequate.

There is only limited independent information available to people experiencing problems with gambling.

Australian governments have ministers for the promotion of gambling, but no ministers for gambling harm reduction.

The gambling industry has expertly created a system which is not only very profitable for companies, but also directly makes significant contributions to governments both through revenue and political donations. Just as tobacco did.

It is disappointing, but not surprising that the gambling industry has become the primary source of consultation for government regulation. The views of those with lived experience and experts in reducing gambling harm are usually not factored into regulatory decision making.

There is a Federal Parliamentary inquiry into online gambling that is now considering its recommendations to government. My deepest fear is that instead of significant reform, all we will see is a tweaking of the communications laws to put modest restrictions on gambling advertising.

This would be a travesty, a missed opportunity that we will pay a heavy price for over future generations.

Instead, we must ban the broadcasting of all gambling advertising and restrict all forms of online gambling promotion. While sporting codes that are now addicted to gambling advertising revenue will cry foul, they did so when there was a ban on tobacco and yet found other advertisers willing to fill the void.

The Federal Government must also expand its response to gambling harm beyond just the communications portfolio and establish a unit in health – just as it has done with other harmful and legal products such as tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

By charging health with the role of reducing gambling harm, it would highlight the public health issues caused by gambling and spearhead the development of a comprehensive national strategy that encompasses prevention, awareness and education, treatment and research. No such strategy exists for gambling.

Gambling harm is profound. It is not just financial, it is social, it impacts mental health, it leads to other health issues and too often it leads to suicide.

It we fail to tackle gambling as a public health issue, we will have failed to learn the lessons from our successful war on tobacco.

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