By Carol Bennett
1 Mar 2023
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.
Today government regulations strictly limits tobacco availability and promotion to reduce the harm it causes our health, our lives and the wider economy. Ironically, this is far from the case when it comes to another profound ‘public harm’, gambling.
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 not harmful.
Unlike smoking, gambling is not treated as a public health issue. Australian governments have ministers for the promotion of gambling, but no ministers for gambling harm reduction.
Gambling is an industry that 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.
This conflict of interest was highlighted last week by the revelations that Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, who has responsibility for gambling regulation, accepted $19,000 in effective donations from gambling company Sportsbet prior to the last election.
Minister Rowland is not alone. Analysis of disclosure returns published by the Australian Electoral Commission alcohol and gambling companies and their lobby groups donated $2.165 million to the two major political parties in 2021-22. An increase of 40% on the previous year.
Australians of all ages are saturated by gambling images and promotions. 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.
Today it is an industry which generates a staggering profit of $25 billion. In this industry, ‘profit’ is a term that directly relates to the losses of everyday Australians.
In Australia there are few support services for those experiencing gambling harm or for those seeking help for someone else’s gambling. For those in need of help, the support services that are available are opaque and often inadequate.
There is only limited independent information available to people experiencing problems with gambling.
Unlike other health and social products that create harm, there is a lack of accountability and transparency both at government level and within the industry itself.
Perhaps it is not surprising the gambling industry has become the primary source of consultation for government regulation.
The views of those with lived experience and those with expertise in harm reduction are often not factored into regulatory decision making.
This systematic exclusion of lived experience and expertise does not happen in areas such as medicines regulation where the pharmaceutical industry is not provided a seat at the table and certainly not without balancing consumer, research and practitioner interests.
In the communications portfolio (both under the Morrison government and now the Albanese government) the lack of appropriate regulation has led to prolific free to air and online gambling advertising with limited controls. It is clear this has caused white hot anger in our communities.
The Alliance represents those who have been harmed by gambling – many of them describe a gambling industry that is predatory on losers, rewards ‘loyal’ customers and those people who spend beyond their means.
Any reduction in gambling harm necessarily challenges gambling industry profitability.
On a national level, reforms to the National Consumer Protection Framework have seen years of delay including to crucial reforms such as activity statements, improved messaging on gambling advertisements and BetStop, the national self-exclusion register.
We need to take urgent action.
The Alliance’s key recommendations to the Federal Parliamentary inquiry into online gambling include simple measures such as restricting online exposure of gambling to children and young people, banning the broadcasting of all gambling advertising and restricting all forms of online gambling promotion.
But more broadly the Federal Government must lead a nationally coordinated effort to tackle gambling related harm through a public health approach recognising that, like other harmful products such as tobacco and alcohol, gambling requires regulation and reform that prevents and reduces harm.
A first step may be to heed the views of harm reduction experts who will feature in a workshop held as part of the National Preventative Health Conference in Adelaide on May 1. The Alliance is co-hosting the event with the Public Health Association of Australia.
There is an urgent need for the Federal Government to establish national regulation to address online gambling harm including the establishment of an independent, adequately funded national gambling regulator.
And just as we do for other public health harms we need to increase public awareness of gambling and its harms through increased education and training. This is something we should be teaching in our schools to protect our children.
We must also improve treatment for people experiencing gambling harm and increase research and support for best practice approaches to gambling harm.
If we don’t act we will repeat the mistakes we made in bowing to the money and power of big tobacco. It is not too late, but urgent action is needed to protect Australians, especially our children.