The public health issue that’s staring us in the face but being ignored
15 October 2019 at 8:17 am
Gambling is doing extreme harm in Australia. It is time for governments to start treating it as the public health issue it so clearly is, writes Rev Tim Costello, chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform.
Last Friday I stood on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House surrounded by people united in the fight against one of the biggest scourges in Australia: gambling harm.
You may have thought I was going to say climate change or drought, or even the need to raise the Newstart allowance. Those issues are all important and need to be addressed, but gambling harm is an issue doing extreme harm in Australia, yet it is effectively being ignored by the federal government and the states too.
Australia has 0.3 per cent of the world’s population and 18 per cent of its poker machines. We collectively lost $24 billion last year feeding money into those addictive machines, and gambling on sports. Those losses not only have financial consequences, they have social consequences for our communities, and devastating impacts on individuals and families. It’s not just money that is lost, it is also time.
Gambling harm not only leads to mental health issues, it also is a symptom of them. Gambling harm is often a factor in family violence, and can be linked to crime as people steal to continue to gamble.
In Victoria between 2000 and 2012 the coroner recorded 128 deaths by suicide where gambling harm was listed as a contributing factor. I know there have been more similar deaths since then – I’ve ministered at funerals for people who died by suicide after experiencing gambling harm this year – yet we have no new data since the 2013 report that listed those deaths.
As surprising as that may be, what is worse is that Victoria’s royal commission into the mental health system did not list anything related to gambling harm in its terms of reference. The Victorian government has also effectively ignored gambling harm in all its major mental health plans and frameworks.
How can this be? It’s especially astounding when you consider that 22 per cent of the estimated costs of Victoria’s mental health system are directly linked to gambling harm.
These reasons and many more are why we stood on the steps of Parliament to call for action, to call for the Victorian government, and governments around Australia, to start addressing gambling harm as the public health issue it so clearly is.
We need gambling harm to be treated akin to tobacco, with a concerted public health approach to what is an addictive and dangerous product with many devastating health and community consequences.
We know this approach will work on many levels. It will lead to tighter regulations, greater restrictions on advertising (or ideally a ban), and a more effective and cohesive health approach to both the prevention and treatment of gambling harm.
It will also lead to a critical shift in the all important influence that companies with gambling interests have over our major political parties, which is effectively blocking reform. We need the thought of our premiers or prime minister taking political donations from gambling interests to be as toxic as it would be if they were taking money from big tobacco.
We must act now as the gambling industry is busily grooming the next generation to also experience gambling harm. Despite their catchy tagline, they don’t want anyone to “gamble responsibly”; they don’t make enough money that way.
That’s why it is no accident that the gambling industry has so closely aligned itself with the family-friendly AFL. I have parents coming up to me on the street frequently to say “you must do something about the AFL and gambling, my kids are talking about their team in terms of the odds they’re at, not who their favourite players are”. Those children’s words are the words of the next generation of gambling harm.
If gambling harm was treated as a public health issue then there would be no way the AFL would be taking $10 million a year in sponsorship from a gambling firm. They would never dream of taking $10 million a year from big tobacco, and they legally wouldn’t be allowed to either.
At another Gambling Harm Awareness Week event on the weekend after hearing stories of gambling harm and governments’ failure to address it, one of the people in the audience asked: “Why are governments not doing more? Why are they ignoring these problems, and letting the gambling industry have so much power?” They are very fair questions.
We ask of our state and federal governments: When are you going to treat gambling harm as the public health issue it so clearly is? When will you truly listen to the myriad stories of gambling harm, their consequences on people, on families, on relationships, on workplaces, on lives?
The Australian government led the way around the world with plain packaging for tobacco because of the public health issues for a dangerous product. It is time such political strength and will was applied to gambling harm too, for all those experiencing gambling harm right now, and for the next generation who are currently seeing ads portraying gambling as fun and cool, just as big tobacco used to do.
Gambler’s Help: 1800 858 858
Lifeline: 13 11 14