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Worse than Las Vegas: Australia’s $24bn gambling addiction

·5-min read
Australian currency and a man sitting in a dark gaming room playing on a Poker machine.
The average Australian loses over $1,200 a year to gambling (Source: Getty)

Cities like Las Vegas are synonymous with gambling – but the reality is Australia trumps the US in terms of individual gambling losses every year.

Businesses like the Star and Crown Casinos are built around gambling and appear to be doing little to curtail the problem.

Currently, Crown Casino is in the middle of a Royal Commission to determine whether it can keep it’s gaming license and some of the stories being revealed are quite shocking.

The inquiry was told Crown Melbourne had up to 64,000 visitors per day from 2016 to 2019, with only 12 employees to monitor gambling addiction. Commissioner Raymond Finkelstein said this would achieve “next to nothing”.

In one instance it was revealed a customer was allowed to stay in the pokie room for 36 hours straight despite Crown saying they only allow players to stay for 12 hours at a time before requiring them to take a break.

But as shocking as these stories are, the issue goes much deeper than just casinos and encompasses a large proportion of the Australian population.

  • Also watch: Footage of a 12 year old girl caught gambling at Star Casino.

How big is the issue?

In Australia gambling losses per capita are the highest in the world, at US$958 in 2017, according to H2 Gambling Capital,

That means the average Aussie loses around $1,236 to gambling every year.

graph showing gambling losses per adult in 2017.
(Source: savings.com.au)

Shockingly, 39 per cent of the Australian population say they are “regular gamblers”, savings.com.au found.

Those who like to buy a lottery ticket were the most common, followed by instant scratchies and then pokie machines.

And those who live in low-income households spend a greater proportion of their disposable income (10 per cent) on gambling compared to high income households (1 per cent).

Another form of tax

The money lost through gambling doesn’t just end up in the hands of the gambling companies, the Aussie government also gets a top up.

A report from Statista found that the Australian government made over half a billion dollars in 2019 from taxing the gaming industry.

So, a proportion of that $1,236 the average Aussie is losing is going to the Government.

Saving that money would be like never having to give up the Government’s Low to Middle Income Tax Offset (LMITO) which is due to end next year.

How exactly is the money being gambled away?

Those hitting the pokies are losing the most. According to the Australian Gaming Council, gaming machines account for $12.5 billion in losses in any given year.

Most of this is coming from New South Wales. NSW pokie machines made $6.5 billion in profit in 2019 – roughly the GDP of Fiji.

Australia is actually home to 20 per cent of the world’s pokie machines, because it is one of the few countries that allows machines outside of casinos.

They’re so easy to come by in a local pub – and that’s helped perpetuate the problem.

In 2017, there were more than 200,000 active pokie machines in Australia, with 100,000 of them in NSW, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found.

And in Victoria, 90 per cent of AFL teams operate their own pokies. Owning pokie machines has become a large part of how the teams collect revenue.

COVID lockdowns haven’t helped

Despite mandatory lockdowns meaning many gamblers couldn’t hit the pokies, an AIFS report found that one in three gamblers reported they had signed up for a new online betting account.

“Even with limited access to venues, overall, participants gambled more often during COVID-19,” the report said.

“The proportion who gambled four or more times a week increased from 23 per cent to 32 per cent.”

And concerningly, the report found 79 per cent of participants were classified as being at risk of, or already experiencing, gambling-related harm.

What can be done?

Each Australian state and territory has its own versions of awareness campaigns, but one of the most noticeable is the “gamble responsibly” tagline placed on ads. But, it appears the words do little to stop the problem.

A Statista poll conducted in Australia in 2019 showed that 70 per cent of respondents did not believe that the phrase 'gamble responsibly' had any effect in reducing problem gambling, and only 3 per cent of respondents believed that it was effective.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform is currently pushing for cashless pokie machines after the NSW government announced a trial.

Cashless machines would require a user to preload a gambling card and give users a time limit for how long they can use the card. There would also be a limit to the amount of money that can be loaded onto the card.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to undo so many bad decisions and designs of the past that have led to so many horrible impacts in our communities,” Alliance Chief Advocate Rev Costello said.

“Gambling harm is a significant public health issue that is being exacerbated by having thousands of poker machines, machines of addiction, available almost everywhere in NSW. They’re inescapable.”

Former gambler turned gambling reform advocate Anna Bardsley said she would like to see cashless gambling safely introduced around Australia.

“Having to take a break and step away from a machine, which is designed to addict you, to add more money to a card, is a powerful circuit breaker. It helps people to take stock of how much they are losing while gambling,” Bardsley said.

“I’m pleased people will be able to set time limits too. I am cautiously hopeful this will go well, and could have a positive impact on gambling harm. Strong, evidence-based action is needed, and now.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with a gabling addiction free support can be found at Gambling Help Online or by calling 1800 858 858. You can also find services in your state here.

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