Australians are the biggest gamblers in the world. Recent figures comparing 15 developed countries showed Australia to be number one, with average losses per adult of almost $1300 per year.
In 2013-14, total gambling losses were more than $21 billion. While other forms of gambling are stable or, in the case of pokies, declining, online sports betting is growing fast. The amount of money spent on it is growing even faster.
The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation estimates that $700 million was lost to online sports betting in 2014 alone. Young people, facing a bleak feature of no jobs, no chance of home ownership and declining services, have led this unprecedented growth in the online gambling industry.
Against this backdrop, in September 2015, then Social Services Minister Scott Morrison announced an inquiry into online gambling. But the review, led by former New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell, focused on the need to protect the profits of local betting companies from international competition!
Its primary aim was to investigate “the economic impacts of illegal offshore wagering and associated financial transactions on legitimate Australian wagering businesses”.
The review made no reference to the huge amount gambling companies spent on advertising, which is helping to create a new demographic of younger, mostly male problem gamblers.
A 2008 decision by the High Court of Australia overturned many areas of gambling regulation. This allowed corporate bookmakers like Betfair, Sportingbet and Centrebet, to expand their outreach, particularly in advertising.
Gambling operators spend more money than the federal government on advertisements. According to The Saturday Paper, “gambling companies spent more than $59 million in 2012, $80 million in 2013, $104 million in 2014, and $129 million last year. Three quarters of it went on TV ads”.
These companies, as Associate Professor Samantha Thomas – a gambling expert at Deakin University – explains, have normalised gambling in the hearts and minds of young people, particularly among those who are fans of the AFL and NRL.
She says that advertising can drive this; “Kids as young as eight can name multiple company brands. They can tell us clearly the plot lines of the ads, the promotional catchphrases. They have a greater level of recall than their parents”.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who was first elected on an anti-gambling platform in 2007, has challenged the O’Farrell Review and has drafted legislation to regulate the worst excesses of the online gambling industry, such as limiting advertising.
The legislation, which will soon be put before the Senate, would ban gambling ads during sports coverage and G-rated TV programs. It would limit the types of bets that could be offered, including bets made after a sporting event has started. The legislation would also require individuals to set monthly and yearly betting limits. Like the O’Farrell Review, Xenophon’s proposed changes, while welcome, do not address the underlying causes of problem gambling.
Up to 80% of young people have gambled in some way, but they are more likely to gamble in a harmful manner. Surveys indicate that between 2.4% and 5% of young people have a problem, a rate far higher than adults.
Young people who have gambling problems are motivated by dire personal circumstances. A 2012 report commissioned by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation revealed that many young people gamble to escape a myriad of problems, such as unemployment, homelessness, financial difficulties, substance abuse or mental health issues like anxiety or depression, among other things.
It’s not just some gamblers that are addicted however. State and federal governments are increasingly becoming addicted to the taxes generated from gambling. That is the reason neither of the major parties are prepared to act against corporate bookmakers or the pokie companies.
Prohibition may only drive gamblers into the arms of criminals. Socialists call for the entire gambling industry to be brought into public hands. That way the profit motive can be removed and real measures to deal with problem gambling can be implemented. At the same time the revenue generated could be used to address social issues and a transition could be made to wind down the industry.
It is ultimately a failure of capitalism to be able to provide people with a future that drives people to gamble irresponsibly. Side by side with reducing the risks of problem gambling we need to fight for a system that is capable of using society’s wealth to provide a decent standard of living for all.
By Conor Flynn