By the time you read this, it will be springtime in Melbourne, that glorious time of the year in which footy finals give way to the spring racing carnival. And that means, right on cue, we’re in for the usual moral panics – grainy videos of ‘shameful’ mad Monday antics, hashtaggery about the plight of racehorses, photos of people worse for wear after a day at Flemington as evidence of Australia’s perennial ‘alcohol problem’.
But there is arguably nothing the chattering classes love picking on more than gambling, making the Australian spring a veritable wowser Christmas. Whether it’s wagering on the footy, punting on the horses or – God forbid – pokies at the pub on the way home, nothing irks the nanny state-industrial complex more than grown adults spending their own money.
Like any other moral panic, anti-gambling hysteria is built on a grain of truth. Problem gambling is an issue experienced by many people, and it can cause serious harm. But as usual, there are complexities and caveats to the debate Big Public Health isn’t owning up to. For one thing, anti-gambling campaigners tend to talk about ‘gambling harm’ rather than ‘problem gambling’. This isn’t a semantic point – it fundamentally moves the goal posts. Problem gambling is a well-defined clinical term and treatable condition, whereas ‘gambling harm’ is so broad and vague it’s virtually meaningless.
The reasons for this semantic pivot are obvious: Problem gambling, in its properly understood sense, is quite rare. Research published by the Australian Gambling Research Centre suggests problem gamblers comprise just over two percent of people who punt regularly – and even then, rates of problem gambling are highest for games like poker and blackjack, as opposed to the usual punching bags of sport wagering and poker machines.
"But there is arguably nothing that the chattering classes love picking on more than gambling, making the Australian spring a veritable wowser Christmas."
Anti-gambling campaigners also ignore the fact around half of problem gamblers have underlying mental health problems like obsessive-compulsive disorder that contribute to addictive behaviour – people who would, without legalised gambling, probably gravitate towards other forms of self-destructive activity, or worse still, be preyed upon by gangsters and loan sharks operating illegally. But the greatest fallacy of the debate is the notion problem gambling will increase as more ways to gamble are made available.
Research by Howard Shaffer of Harvard Medical School, for example, indicates rates of problem gambling in the United States remained stable between 1976 and 2011, despite “an unprecedented increase in access to gambling” via the legalisation of casinos and the rise of online gambling. Equivalent studies in Australia suggest problem gambling has effectively plateaued. More to the point, Shaffer concluded problem gambling is “not a relentless personality disorder”, which means most people can easily control it. Unlike, say, cigarettes or heroin, exposure to gambling is extremely unlikely to lead to addiction in any real sense.
But while only a few of us are addicted, as many as 6.8 million Australians gamble in a typical month. And the reason for that is simple: Australians love to punt. We skip work to go to the Melbourne Cup, play two-up on ANZAC Day, and will bet on anything from elections to royal baby names. In fact, Australians missed gambling so much during the coronavirus lockdowns that SportsBet literally opened a book on the weather. And that’s what the anti-gambling brigade will never understand. Australians do not gamble because we are preyed upon by nefarious commercial interests, but because we like it, and most of us do it with little harm to ourselves and others.
The bottom line is problem gambling is a mental health issue, and it should be treated as a mental health issue, not regulated as a consumer issue. If the Stephen Maynes and Tim Costellos of the world were genuine, they’d campaign for help for problem gamblers, not trying to ruin the fun for the rest of us. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
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