An investigation into Australia's gambling addiction

by Julia André
Pubs, RSL’s, clubs; they’re the backbone of Australian communities. A place to have an easy meal with family, to share a beer with friends, to relax and unwind from the 9 to 5. But there’s a corner in each of these venues full of flashing lights and tricks. Sparkly machines that take more money than you give them. Television screens lit up with boundless races to bet on; horses, dogs, humans.
No other country competes with us when it comes to gambling, Australia is number one. 18% of the world’s poker machines sit in Australia, yet we only make up 0.3% of the world’s population. We also take the cake for the biggest losses. On average, each Australian gambles away $1,292 a year.
Whilst COVID-19 lockdowns have offered some respite from the dopamine fuelled rush of poker machines (especially in Victoria), online betting use has skyrocketed. The Australian Gambling Research Centre has found that 18-34 year old men increased their monthly gambling expenditure from $687 before COVID-19 to $1,075 during COVID-19. Considering suicide accounts for over a third of deaths in Australian men aged 15-34, it’s a worrying addition of stress.
“Gambling advertising in relation to sports betting is undoubtedly driving a whole new generation of people to gambling and we know the target of that advertising is young men,” says Dr Charles Livingstone, a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine, Monash University.
Jacob was only fifteen years old when he first began to gamble. He relives the fun of it all as he sits in his sunny inner Sydney terrace. It was a means of escape following the devastatingly early loss of his mother. Born in England, he and his father would sit in their local pub, bonding over football games and making bets.

Jacob was smart about his bets, he knew the game and played to his strengths. What he didn’t know was that he’d go on to lose fifteen years of his life to a sports betting addiction.

Jacob spent his early twenties living paycheck-to-paycheck in London, barely able to afford food because of his growing losses. He decided he needed a clean break and thought Australia would be the perfect fit.
He was wrong. In Australia, gambling was everywhere he turned.
“I’ll never forget going to Circular Quay on what happened to be Melbourne Cup day and a bunch of TAB trucks parked up. Like, this is a world-renowned tourist spot and you’ve got TAB trucks in the frame of the Harbour Bridge. Imagine that happening at the Eiffel Tower? It wouldn’t.”
Jacob’s anger mirrors the public outrage sparked in 2018 by an advertisement for the Everest Cup horse race splashed across the Sydney Opera House’s sails. 
During COVID-19, gambling ads have been sandwiched between multi-lingual public health announcements on SBS. Each advertisement ends with a message; “gamble responsibly.”
“The industry has been really successful in framing gambling as an issue of personal responsibility, even the public health messages, ‘gamble responsibly’ immediately imply that it is your personal responsibility and there is no responsibility from the industry. It creates a situation of increased shame and stigma, it prevents people from seeking help,” says the Alliance for Gambling Reform’s Margaret Quixley.
“If you exposed anyone on earth to the type of saturation advertising and saturation availability of gambling industries in Australia they’d be gambling around the same as Australians do. The industry is very well organised and ubiquitous,” says Dr Livingstone.
Charlie*, 24, started out on the poker machines when he first turned eighteen. He wasn’t enticed by the machines until he moved away to work in the mines a couple of years later. Surrounded by new workmates and away from home, he quickly went from gambling $100-200 a week to an easy $2,000 per week. 
Charlie* was hooked on the poker machines for two years until he swore them off for good. All up, he estimates he sunk $60,000 – $70,000 into them. 
“We were staying in Melbourne and I maxed out two cards in half an hour. Another afternoon I won about $20,000 and I rinsed all that in a week,” he says. 
“It’s hard to describe the feeling, it’s like you lose and you know you should walk away but it’s literally like you’re glued to the machine. Before you know it you’re at the ATM pulling out more money.”
What Charlie* is describing is called ‘being in the zone’. Poker machines are wired to pump dopamine through a user’s body, triggering a reward system associated with the machine into the brain. No one is immune to this sensation. But like any addiction, if you’re already exposed to a high-stress lifestyle, you’re more likely to get hooked on the habit. 
In Sydney, poker machines are highly-concentrated in the south-west of the city, home to its most financially stressed suburbs. They’re also likely to be in new housing estates on the fringes of the city, where people have little access to social connection and community facilities. 

“Often the only social amenity in such a community is a pub or club that is chock-a-block full of pokies. In my opinion, Sydney’s clubs and pubs have crowded out all the alternative venues and music sites that are available in other parts of Australia so you end up getting forced into these places because they’re the only places open. Plus they’re a place to get cheap grog and a cheap meal. And that’s their business model to entice you to get in,” says Dr Livingstone.

In early October, the NSW Government announced its plan for poker machines to become completely cashless, requiring users to load money on to an Opal-style card to play. Supported by the unlikely pairing of the Greens and One Nation, the system would not allow those who have opted to be self-excluded from gambling to obtain a card. 

It’s a bold move considering NSW is the poker machine capital of Australia. Between 2010 and 2019, Clubs NSW donated $2.5 million to individuals MP’s across Australia. In the 2018-19 financial period, Australian Hotels & Hospitality Association Inc. donated $1,077,386 to various Liberal and Labor parties and branches. Australian Hotels Association NSW trailed a little behind, donating $479,629. 

“Clubs NSW has a huge impact, they’ve funded the University of Sydney and some notable gambling researchers there for some time. Clubs NSW has also entered into an extraordinary arrangement called a Memorandum of Understanding with each of the last three incoming NSW Liberal governments. Basically, Clubs NSW gets to do what it likes and in return, they won’t beat the government up,” says Dr Livingstone. 
The first Memorandum of Understanding between Clubs NSW and the NSW Government was signed in 2010 by then Premier Barry O’Farrell and was titled, “Strong Clubs, Stronger Communities.” 
“Gambling harm extends well into the community, it doesn’t just end with people in acute forms of addiction. Between 5 and 10 people in the lives of a gambler are also impacted by the gambling. So we’re talking about millions of Australians. In Victoria, the social costs of gambling extend well beyond the immediate losses, equating to about $7 billion in the state alone,” says Quixley.
This extension of gambling harm has impacted the family of Gary Van Duinen. Gary died by suicide earlier this year, after being placed in a poker machine loyalty program at Dee Why RSL. His wife Sonia, had made repeated complaints to the club that he needed to be excluded, but instead, his gambling addiction was encouraged. 
Van Duinen was treated as a high roller because the club knew he was in their top 100 gamblers range. He was offered harbour cruises and race day events, a clear breach of Responsible Gambling Legislation. The NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority Chair Philip Crawford condemned the club’s actions.
The Alliance for Gambling Reform is concerned that without increased legislation restricting access to poker machines, Victoria will see a spike in gambling harm in the coming months. The additional threat of reduced JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments has the potential to worsen the threat. 
“We saw a similar period during the financial crisis, it was largely predictable. We certainly hold concerns for a similar situation in Victoria when lockdowns ease,” says Quixley. 

Pre-COVID, Victorian poker machine venues were allowed to operate within pubs and clubs for 20 hours a day, the longest period in the country. In 2017-2018 Victorians spent $5.81 billion on gambling losses. But the state’s COVID-19 lockdowns have enabled Victorians to save $1.58 billion on poker machine losses since March 23. The Alliance for Gambling Reform suggests that this extra expenditure has most likely been spent on the struggling Victorian economy. 

“We were really excited for the COVID period because we had these silver linings stories of people being able to buy easter eggs for their grandchildren for the first time or taking their grandmother to garden together instead of going to their local club,” says Quixley.

“Gambling is not something that’s inherent to our culture and it’s actually the antithesis to many of the values that Australians hold dear, things like fairness, and equality and community, this is what’s important, this is what we’ve learnt through COVID and these are things that are really undermined by gambling’s saturation in sport,” says Quixley. 

*Name has been changed.

If you or someone you know is experiencing gambling harm, please contact:

Gamblers Helpline 1800 858 858