Responsible Gambling Interventions: Helpful or Hype?

There has been a lot of media coverage recently surrounding the issue of gambling and problem gambling. It has been turned into a political issue by the Federal parties who are jostling for vital votes and lobby groups with their own agendas trying to sway public opinion.

A number of so called "harm minimisation" interventions have been raised suggesting that they would reduce or eliminate problem gambling altogether. Some of these interventions are the cap on gaming machine numbers, removing ATM's from gambling venues, changing the denomination amount that can be inserted into a gaming machine (in some other States), reducing trading hours of gaming venues, banning smoking and introducing ticket-in-ticket-out.

Before considering such interventions it is important to understand the behaviour of a problem gambler. After all, they are the people that these harm minimisation strategies are targeting, aren't they?

Compulsive, pathological, problem, addictive - whatever term you use - gamblers continue to gamble despite the fact they continue to lose money. A large majority of these people continue to do this because it is a form of escapism. Many are depressed, mentally/physically ill, have been mentally/physically abused, are in unhappy marriages (or relationships), are widowed, have a stressful job and the list goes on. The "high" that gamblers describe when they gamble is not dissimilar to that of a drug user or alcoholic.

Therefore, is the answer to remove a percentage of poker machines, to remove ATM's from gaming venues, to reduce the denomination of money that a gambler can insert into a machine, to ban smoking in gaming venues? Do drug users stop taking drugs when their drug dealer stops supplying them drugs or when the price of drugs goes because the police intercept a large shipment of illegal drugs? NO.

If ATM's are removed from gaming venues, problem gamblers will simply walk or drive to the nearest ATM to withdraw money because they are addicted - recreational gamblers wont because they cannot be bothered. Once again, do you think a heroin addict would decide not to travel to the next suburb if drugs aren't available where they live? Of course not they would crawl on their hands and heels to obtain their 'fix'. They will do what they NEED to do. Independent research conducted by Sydney University in 2001 found that preventing note acceptors from taking $50 and $100 bills had a negligible impact on problem gambling. Removing note acceptors completely from gaming machines (as in South Australia) appears to reduce the expenditure by recreational gamblers (who can't be bothered feeding in coins) but not problem gamblers (who are more determined).

If the amount of money (denomination) that a gambler can insert into a gaming machine is reduced - or if notes can no longer be inserted into gambling machines - problem gamblers will sit there for however long is required to insert the same amount of money - recreational gamblers cannot be bothered sitting there for that long to insert the money.

If a venue shuts at 3am because of the mandatory shut down, problem gamblers will gamble faster before the venue closes, go to Star City (open 24 hours) or gamble at an online casino.

Banning smoking means that problem gamblers just go longer without a cigarette so that they can gamble - in most cases (to the addicted gambler) the gambling bug is stronger than the smoking bug - recreational gamblers will stop gambling and go outside for a cigarette because that urge is stronger.

Problem gamblers adapt, the urge to gamble is so strong that regardless of the barrier that is placed in front of them, they will find a way to get around it. They are very cunning, intelligent and manipulative. They don't just affect their own lives, they generally affect 5-10 other lives.

So how can gaming venues and government help reduce the effects of problem gambling on the individual and the other 5-10 people they affect? They can provide practical restrictions and assistance to gamblers and their families. Problem gambling will always exist as long as blackjack, poker machines, TAB, Keno, etc remain legal.

Withholding Winnings

The recent court decision of Foroughi v Star City highlights the difficulties gaming venues encounter in enforcing self-exclusions. This is particularly the case for clubs which have no legal sanctions to enforce self-exclusions. In Foroughi's case, the casino could have imposed an involuntary exclusion and prosecuted the gambler for breaching it.

The reality is that problem gamblers are breaching their self-exclusions to try to win back what has been lost. This futile behaviour results in further losses and desperate behaviour such as stealing to get funds to gamble. Had the court in Foroughi compensated the gambler, it could have looked forward to thousands of copycat claims.

However, the problem of breaches of self-exclusion remains a nuisance for conscientious gaming venues who try to protect problem gamblers from themselves. The solution is to remove the incentive that problem gamblers have in trying to breach their exclusion. If they get in, but risk forfeiture of any winnings, then they lose their motivation. A winner must provide identification for any prize exceeding $2,000 (often less). At that point the venue must take a long hard look at the winner. If forfeiture of winnings is likely to occur at this time, then there is no point in gambling in breach of the exclusion and excluded patrons won't try to get in at first.

Involuntary exclusion

Currently NSW legislation does not require gaming venues to ban a patron if they advise a member of staff that they have a gambling problem. This means that if I approach a gaming attendant in most NSW clubs or pubs, advise them that I have a gambling problem, by law they can allow me to continue gambling at the venue. The legislation should be amended to require all gaming venues to involuntarily exclude a patron if they admit to having a gambling problem.

Many family members feel isolated because they feel as though there is nothing they can do to stop the gambler gambling. For example, in many cases the homemaker cannot put food on the table or pay the rent because the working spouse is gambling all of the house keeping money. If the spouse approaches the venue, the venue can do very little to force the gambler to stop gambling. The legislation should be amended to require all gaming venues to investigate complaints of this manner (3rd Party Complaints) and involuntarily exclude the patron if there is sufficient evidence of a gambling problem.

Availability of counselling

The NSW government, through the Responsible Gambling Fund (RGF), funds a referral service (G-Line) which allows problem gamblers to be put in contact with a problem gambling counselling service in their local area. The problem with most of these government-funded services is that they operate only during business hours. At least one of these services was recently quoted in the media as saying that counselling spaces are not being used. What these services fail to recognise is that most problem gamblers work during the day. As such, it is hard for them attend on-going counselling without further jeopardising their job. This places a large barrier in front of them to seek help. The RGF should require all of its funded services to allow a percentage of appointments for evenings and weekends when gamblers are more likely to be able to attend counselling.

Problem gambling will continue to be an area of concern to the community, however instead of implementing restrictions that may look or sound good, research should be funded to investigate the effectiveness of these restrictions in reducing problem gambling - not only recreational gambling and not just done to win votes.

Member venues of BetSafe, a voluntary, industry funded responsible gambling program, already implement the above recommendations, including the BetSafe 24 hour phone counselling and after hours face-to-face counselling service. This service is a free service to all patrons of BetSafe member venues

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