A prominent gambling researcher is urging the Queensland government to make it mandatory for gamblers to preset a spending limit on poker machines, saying it is a powerful harm reduction measure.
- Use of pre-commitment technology will be considered in a review, Queensland government says
- Researcher says it would also provide real-time data on losses posted by gambling addicts
- Gambling counselor says shame is a key barrier to people seeking help for gambling addiction
Charles Livingstone, who heads the gambling and social determinants unit at Monash University’s school of public health and preventive medicine, said a mandatory pre-commitment requirement on pokies players should be implemented across the more than 40,000 machines in the state’s pubs and clubs.
Dr Livingstone said this would mean losses never exceeded an amount decided by gamblers before they sat down in front of a gaming machine.
A spokesperson for Queensland’s Office of Liquor and Gaming (OLGR) said voluntary pre-commitment technology was already available in the state’s gaming venues and that it was one of a range of issues being considered in a review of the gambling code of practice.
But Dr Livingstone stressed it was essential to make pre-commitment mandatory for it to be effective.
This would require gamblers to set a maximum loss limit before sitting down at poker machines.
He said it would be “a really good step” for Queensland authorities and not difficult to implement.
“If you’ve got a monitoring system, which you do in Queensland, that means all the machines are networked, they’re all connected to a system,” Dr Livingstone said.
“That system can be re-jigged to put in place a pre-commitment system.”
Dr Livingstone said this could be done without revealing the identities of gamblers, and would have the added benefit of providing real-time data on losses posted by gambling addicts.
It comes after the ABC last month revealed Queenslanders lost a record of more than $300 million on pokies in pubs and clubs in July.
Regulators fail to recognize harm
Dr Livingstone said the federal government recently enacted a requirement for online betting companies to send their customers monthly statements on wins and losses.
“We’ve got quite good interventions being put in place for online gambling and almost nothing being put in place to equal it for terrestrial poker machine gambling,” he said.
“What we’ve got is a situation where almost every survey globally tells us that the most harmful form of gambling is poker machine gambling.
“I think all of the regulators around Australia… have largely failed to recognize the harms that are associated with local poker machine gambling.”
He said pokies in pubs and clubs still seemed to be able to operate without too much intervention and oversight.
“There is a cohort of people, people in serious danger, who are literally losing thousands of dollars a month,” he said.
“Now that’s what the industry relies on – there is a small core of people who are losing a fortune and that is where the industry’s profits come from.”
Dr Livingstone said the requirement that venues set codes of conduct on “responsible gambling” would be good if they were supervised and monitored and effectively enforced.
“But it is none of those things. The research literature actually indicates it’s quite the opposite,” he said.
A 2019 analysis of Victoria’s voluntary YourPlay pokies pre-commitment system by the University of Adelaide found it was implemented by both state authorities and the venues themselves, but had not been successful due to its poor uptake.
“The available evidence suggests that those gamblers using YourPlay cards are achieving reasonable rates of benefits in terms of both consumer protection … and harm reduction,” the analysis said.
“However, usage of YourPlay is very low, even allowing for the fact that usage was expected to be low given the voluntary nature of the scheme.”
A Queensland OLGR spokesperson said minimizing gambling harm “and that the gambling industry operates in a balanced way to deliver benefits to the community” are ongoing priorities of the state government.
“A range of issues associated with gambling environments and products in Queensland, including the use of pre-commitment, will be considered as part of the review of the Queensland Responsible Gambling Code of Practice,” the spokesperson said.
“The review of the code of practice is due to commence in 2022-23.”
Rise in requests for help
Jon O’Mally from the Financial Counselors Association of Queensland (FCAQ) said there had been a “significant increase” in client demand related to gambling behaviour.
He said the link between social and financial stress and gambling “is indeed a real issue”.
Mr O’Mally said FCAQ would support a move to require pre-commitment on pokies losses.
“Voluntary use of pre-commitment levels hasn’t been particularly successful, so they would need to be compulsory,” he said.
“Much easier to restrict access and gaming activity by eliminating poker machines and EGMs in pubs and clubs altogether.
“There are many other ways of limiting harm too — a gambler can’t gamble without access to funds and in this regard the banks can play a significant role.”
Shame disguises extend of gambling problem
A Cairns-based counselor and educator with the UnitingCare Gambling Help program said she had noticed a rise in the number of people seeking help with self-exclusions — a formal procedure to have themselves banned from a pokies gambling room at their local pub or club.
Wil, who requested her surname be withheld for the privacy of her clients, said the organization worked across 70 venues in Far North Queensland, offering help to gamblers and venue operators.
“A lot more people are asking for that to happen so that they can’t go and gamble,” Wil said.
“We’re not the gambling police – we’re there so that people know that we’re available and that we have a free counseling service.
“We’ve had people call us the next day and say, ‘Thank goodness you girls came along, you gave me that card and it made me realize I really need to get some help. Can I make an appointment and come in and see you?'”
Wil said setting a mandatory pre-commitment on poker machines was “a great idea”.
She said gambling harm flew under the radar because of the shame felt by people who struggled to control an addiction to pokies.
“There is a stigma attached to gambling. I would say that if you were speaking to [a drug and alcohol] counselor … they would actually tell you they have a waiting list that’s a mile long.
“Because people will actually talk about their drug and alcohol use before they’ll tell you about their gambling problem.
“I talk to people all the time about that – why do you think you could tell me about your drug and alcohol use before you could tell me about gambling?
“They say, ‘I can blame the alcohol for my behavior or I can blame the drugs for my behavior but I’m not actually ingesting a substance or doing anything that changes my mental state but I’m still harming myself and my family by spending money.’
“There’s just so much shame and guilt around that.”
She said those people did not realize the poker machines themselves were designed to be addictive, so they blamed themselves.