BLOG: It was pretty quiet on the streets around SACOSS over the long weekend, but on Sunday night, after the main bar was closed, the lights were still well and truly on in one section of a local hotel – the pokie section.
Last drinks may have been called, but the complimentary tea and biscuits were still in place, the machines shining into the night and chiming their lies.
Because that’s what pokies offer, really: lies. The lie that you’ll leave a winner; that it’s worth it; that it’s fun; that it’s a chance to socialise. That the benefits outweigh the costs.
According to the office of Consumer and Business Services, and as reported in last weekend’s Sunday Mail (and The Advertiser) South Australians lost more than $831m to pokies operated in the state’s pubs and clubs in the year to June 30. A record amount.
This is an extraordinary amount of effectively wasted money.
This might be ok if we could be confident that everyone who was gambling was doing so without compulsion and within limits that meant they had plenty left over to live a good life.
Gamblers and gambling help services will readily tell you this is not the case for far too many people. People who should be, are not being protected from gambling harm and they, their families, and we as a community, all pay a very high, but often less visible price for this.
Pokies are insidious, and provide a very visible example of gambling risk, but unfortunately, it’s not simply pokies that people are being repeatedly and energetically encouraged and lured to gamble on. Online betting is another clear area of concern, as is early exposure to gambling for children and young people via apps.
We need to be treating all forms of gambling with the caution it really deserves, and if recent royal commissions are anything to go by, we also need to assume that at least some gambling operators are happy to ignore regulations and bend rules if it suits them.
Our SA state government currently benefits heavily from the taxes it receives from gambling - but it is also responsible for protecting its citizens from the harm gambling causes. Our government should be deeply uncomfortable with its growing reliance on the continued expansion of this income stream.
Moreover, the gambling industry has very deep pockets for advocacy in its interests. It consistently and aggressively seeks to expand its reach. It is known to be a major donor to political interests and wields great influence through its advertising regimes, despite the fact that it is well known that this industry plies a product that can cause great hardship and harm.
In contrast, while here in SA there is some (inadequate) funding for gambling harm and help services, there is no funding for any advocacy that can provide evidence and responses around the issues that gambling causes us as a community, which in any way can compete with the gambling industry’s voices. SACOSS has long advocated for government investment in this space.
So, what do we need? We should have much stronger controls on advertising. We should be concentrating pokies into a smaller number of venues with much stronger and compulsory pre-commitment programmes for gamblers.
We also need more services. There are insufficient gambling help services to meet demand and there is inadequate support to people available early so as to prevent them cascading into addiction and harm.
We should also have real measures of the cost of gambling harm for our community, and this should regularly be made transparent and examined. We also need to be very cautious about the vast expansion of “sportsbetting”.
Our heroes and high-profile sporting clubs should be abandoning all their ties to all income streams from gambling products. And gambling advertising should be subject to much more stringent controls. Gambling should not be allowed to be normalised in the online and offline games that our children play.
As many have noted before, even the mandatory warning “Gamble responsibly” functions to underline a misleading narrative that avoiding gambling harm is simply a matter of individuals behaving “responsibly”. Compare this to the warnings we have on cigarettes: “Smoking harms unborn babies”, “Smoking causes throat cancer”, and “Smoking kills”.
When it comes to public debate, the deck is stacked against gamblers and the families and community service organisations that are often left to pick up the pieces. This asymmetry of power must be redressed, if we are ever to protect those people in our community who would otherwise continue to become the gambling industry’s victims.
The costs are high. We shouldn’t underestimate the harm that is done to individuals, families and communities by gambling. The levels of financial hardship, the erosion of mental health, interpersonal conflict, the drive to addiction, all work to completely erode relationships and family life – and maybe also careers.
To paraphrase the smoking warnings, gambling harms children and families. Gambling is addictive. Problem gambling is a health problem. And some who have seen the devastation it can bring first-hand would probably add “Gambling can kill”.
If people can’t get the help they need, at the times they need it, then heartbreak of one sort or another almost certainly follows. Our gambling help services have a range of ways to support people – help is out there, and it works – but they are typically over stretched.
There are things we can all do. We can tell our state and federal governments they need to do better. We can celebrate the good work of the services we have, and lobby for increased support for them. And where gambling is promoted in our communities – by sporting figures, by businesses and institutions, we can call it out – we can say, that’s not ok – and take our money elsewhere. The reason we have gambling is that it pays – just not for gamblers.
Ross Womersley, CEO, South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS)