11 November 2022
Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans
The Internet Problem
The issue of online Gambling is similar to many problems in that online gambling involves an area of activity that is largely beyond the direct control of the Australian Parliaments, or indeed any single Parliament. The internet was designed to be anarchic, and so it is.
Programs to deal with gambling regulation are thus ineffective, but the limited terms of reference of this inquiry suggests that governments are not thinking in terms of what they can do at a systemic and global level and are turning instead to a focus on the individual.
Need for an Industry focus rather than an Individual Focus
It must be noted that where creating public health problems benefits an Industry, the response must be against that Industry. Concentrating on individuals while the Industry markets to the world is a very inefficient strategy. To use a historical example, the Tobacco Industry marketed with ubiquitous ads, sponsorships, product placements and many other techniques, yet wanted medical professionals and school education to be the only techniques used against them, framing the issue as personal choice (and responsibility) and ‘smokers v. non-smokers’ requiring courtesy (and no criticism and restrictions).
This is the situation that the Gambling Industry is in now. They demand to be able to market to the world, but want all harm minimisation programs directed at individuals. They know that this is a winning strategy for them.
What the Federal Government Can Do
While it is true that the Australian Federal government has no effective jurisdiction over the internet, and does not licence or control the Hotels, Clubs and Casinos with their poker machines, it has control over Australian media advertising laws and also allocates grants to States. The Federal government could ban all Gambling advertising on electronic media in Australia, and lessen grants to States in proportion to their revenue from Gambling. This would stop the States getting any benefit from gambling revenue, which they rely on quite highly. Western Australia, which is missing out on Gambling revenue would certainly support this.
The ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship has set a precedent for action on public health issues, and there was censorship of certain opinions that were antithetical to a national COVID strategy, so the idea of a ban on Gambling advertising is not new or radical. VicHealth also replaced tobacco advertising with ads for healthy lifestyles and anti-Gambling advertising could replace ads for Gambling. The protest group, BUGA UP (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) in the 1980s used satire of tobacco advertising to sharpen the focus on the Tobacco Industry’s absurd imagery and callous disregard for the lives of their customers. They won hearts for their Robin Hood approach to the entrenched power of the Tobacco Industry and set the world standard for action against tobacco, because compared to their actions, everything else became ‘moderate’. But less recognised than their billboard campaign was the re-framing of the debate from ‘smokers v non-smokers’ and ‘personal choice’, to a ‘Tobacco Industry campaign to make a profit even though it kills people’. This reframing in the public mind allowed governments to stand up to the Tobacco Industry and forced political parties to eschew their donations (at least publicly)..
Gambling Industry Strategy
The Gambling Industry’s ads are very clever, appearing to take the loser’s side to identify with (usually) him and dangle the prospect of a win, though of course this is statistically impossible in the medium term. They are perverting the idea of ‘mateship’ to a group Gambling session with a cheery comparison of who they are backing as they watch sport. This would be very vulnerable to a satiric response, based on a commiseration as to which mug lost the most and a final comment that ‘gamblers are losers’.
Laissez-faire v. Health
The Federal government is responsible for the health of Australians and with an increasing percentage of health problems being related to lifestyle choices, the government cannot simply ‘leave health to the market’. ‘The market’ will sell anything that makes money irrespective of whether it has good health outcomes or not, so leaving the national wellbeing to ‘the market’ is a highly flawed strategy as the government in the end picks up the tab for all problems. The Federal government should unashamedly promote sales and practices that are good for health and discourage things that are not.
Encouraging good personal decisions
Any reasonable management textbook will say that the best way to manage things is to have good decisions made at the lowest possible level within the organisation. Yet gambling advertising uses distractions and dreams of riches that are statistically extremely unlikely to encourage people to gamble, and thus not use their money wisely. If the ads said ‘Do not contribute to superannuation’, ‘Do not save’, Do not worry if you do not have enough money to feed your kids’, there would be a huge outcry. Yet this is the outcome with a large percentage of gambling money received being from people who cannot really afford it. The social problems created take an immense amount of effort from government and NGO charitable organisations to try to rectify them. Often they cannot. This problem is entirely created because of bad decisions on gambling made by people who the Gambling Industry has conned. It is exactly like people taking up smoking. It was portrayed as a bit of harmless pleasure, but when people were hooked, it did them immense harm. Gambling is the same.
Need for Gambling Research
One the other problems of Gambling is that the research is funded by the industry, so its scope and nature are controlled. The amount of harm that it does is poorly quantified, so that there is little evidence for those opposing Gambling to use in political debate. The lack of evidence and the lack of debate suits the Gambling Industry fine- they are more than happy to continue and extend the status quo. Given that the Federal government is a major player in cleaning up the social problems created by the Gambling, it should insist that there be well funded research on the social consequences of Gambling, and the nature of this research should not be determined by the Gambling Industry. The Gambling Industry in Australia is extremely large by world standards, perhaps the largest in the world apart from little enclaves like Monaco or Macau where the money is retained by the State and the social problems are either ignored or assumed to be manifest elsewhere. The social indices of distress are very high in Las Vegas. It might be said that the Gambling Industry in Australia is like the gun lobby in the US; it is almost unchallengeable. This must change, and the Federal government must initiate the change.
It is interesting that the Clubs lobby is under challenge at a state level. The origin of this is uncertain. There has always been a lobby against Gambling, and this may have been helped by the rapid rise in the inflation rate which is straining the family budget, particularly of disadvantaged people, who are the ones most affected by Gambling losses. It is also no doubt helped by the revelations that the Casinos have happily laundered money for organised crime, by-passing their regulatory systems, and being perceived by organised crime as an easier target than foreign jurisdictions. The public also notice that the Casino boards were well stacked with ex-politicians, who were presumed to be there to smooth the political pathway of the Casinos in their dealing with regulation or (even) enforcement. It might be noted that despite the huge amounts of money being laundered and the findings that the Casinos were not fit to have licences, their share prices have only suffered modestly, showing that everyone knows that eventually their licence will be restored and it will be ‘business as usual’. The public is also well aware that the charade, ‘’I had no idea what was happening’ from the politically connected people at the top, merely leads to a resignation or two, but there is no penalty on the individuals. An aboriginal youth can go to gaol for petty theft, but laundering billions for organised crime merely leads a Casino director to a sojourn in the yacht club. While the major political parties have been very reluctant to upset the Hotel and Club industry, as evidenced by the 20 year delay in introducing smoke-free indoor air legislation, the rise of the Teal candidates threatening once safe seats, has pressured the major political parties to take a more ethical stance, and also blunted the financial advantage that support from the pubs and clubs lobby gives to their campaigns.
Online v. Off-line Gambling
But the final possibility for the pressure on the Clubs and Hotels may have come from the Online Gambling lobby. If it is assumed that people who want to gamble will use what is available, there is a real possibility that the lack of poker machines availability in pubs and clubs may lead to an increase in online Gambling. Supporters of the pubs and clubs are quick to point out that the clubs are non-profit and spend their monies enlarging their premises and providing facilities in Australia, as well as paying at least some tax to State governments. If there were a change towards online Gambling this money would go overseas. This overlooks the social context of gambling. Playing a poker machine is quite different from going online, so there is unlikely to be a direct transfer, even if the online experience is made more similar.
Need for Federal Government Action on all Gambling
The lesson for the Federal government, however, is that Gambling must be discouraged at both the pub and club level, and online at the same time. Both have similarly detrimental financial consequences for the players and punters, though the industries are distinct. From the public’s point of view, it is worrying that the terms of reference of this inquiry neglect that issue of Gambling in pubs, clubs and the TAB, as it suggests that these influences have restricted the terms of reference. The regulation of the internet is also a wider problem, which usually comes into focus with the issues of inflammatory hate speech, medical disinformation, defamation or an aspect of pornography. Gambling for money should be in a similar category to these and discussed in a similar context.
- The Federal Government should recognise that the Gambling Industry and its power is the reason that Australia has a worse Gambling problem than almost any other developed country and the the Gambling Industry has a hold on Australian politics as strong as the Gun lobby in the USA, and with a detrimental effect that could be of similar magnitude.
- The Federal government should take an unequivocal stand that Gambling is harmful in that it encourages poor financial decision-making which puts a strain on the whole welfare system, Federal, State and NGO.
- The Federal government should recognise that all forms of Gambling need to be discouraged, pubs, clubs, TAB, on-course and online and this needs to be an unequivocal campaign, similar to Quit or for the necessity for vaccination.
- The campaign against Gambling needs to be in schools and have both a mathematical component as part of statistics, and a more practical part looking at online Gambling, and the social institutions which encourage Gambling.
- The campaign against Gambling must involve electronic media advertising bans on TV and all advertising and sponsorship. It must involve active ads against Gambling as well as merely bans on pro-Gambling ads. It should use satire and be prolonged.
- The control of online Gambling should be seen in the context of minimising the harm of the ubiquitous internet, and research on how to lessen Gambling should be pursued with endeavours to lessen other social harms such as child sexual exploitation, bullying, vaccine disinformation, tobacco and vaping advertising and disinformation, hate speech, video games that promote violence and defamation.
- The Federal government should fund Gambling research so that the social consequences can be quantified and rational decisions made about the cost-benefit to society. Gambling research should not be neglected, limited, financed and controlled by the Gambling Industry as is currently the case.
- There must be support for people who have a gambling problem. Such services need to be publicised, and destigmatised, as happened for those with mental illness. However, individual services must not be a substitute for a more systemic industry-focussed approach.
- There needs to be a national register of addicted gamblers to allow better exclusion from gambling facilities. If this were comprehensive, it could be used to prevent addicts losing money online with a caveat emptor for those who took the bets from registered addicts. The credit card companies could be recruited not to allow Gambling to such addicts and not to honour Gambling debts incurred by registered addicts.
- The Federal government should consider family support for addicted gamblers in the same way that child support is available for at risk families.
About the Author
Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans is medical doctor, who trained in surgery and became a tobacco-control advocate, then an Australian Democrat MLC in the NSW Upper House. He is currently working as a GP.