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Counting the cost of pokies


While Monaco is a gambling haven and Macau is sometimes called the ‘Monte Carlo of the East’, Australia has the third-highest number of electronic gaming machines (pokies) per capita, calculated at one for every 114 people.

Two recent Foundation-funded research reports, Proximity to gambling venues, gambling behaviours and related harms and Personal insolvencies and the availability of neighbourhood gaming venues, broadly found that those who live closer to a gambling venue lose more than people who live further away.

Professor David Johnston, Dr Samia Badji and Associate Professor Nicole Black from the Centre for Health Economics, Monash University, considered how living close to a venue affects gambling behaviour and harm, and whether the effects differ across sub-populations, such as older people.

Hardship and distress

Reported harms included financial hardship, psychological distress and relationship breakdown, with no marked difference in behaviour or harm related to factors such as age, cultural or ethnic background, or population density.

However, the level of unemployment was a differentiating factor, with more disadvantaged areas experiencing greater levels of harm. This amounted to lower income households spending 18.6 per cent of their income on gambling versus 6.4 per cent in higher income households.

‘They’re quite extreme events and a real tip of the iceberg.’
Professor David Johnston

Consideration of measures like bankruptcies showed that one less venue in an area correlated with approximately two fewer local insolvencies a year.

These were ‘a marker of high financial stress,’ says Professor Johnston. ‘They’re quite extreme events and a real tip of the iceberg.’

The proximity study did not focus on potential differences related to the size of venues, opening hours or transport, but it did compare outcomes for people who lived at different distances from venues.

HILDA survey and gambling harm

Overlaying the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) annual survey with venue location, the researchers examined Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane, where the majority of the population lives less than five kilometres from a venue that provides multiple forms of gambling.

… survey results generally understate potential gambling issues.

The 2015 and 2018 surveys included questions on gambling behaviour. The 2022 survey will ask about behaviours identified in the Problem Gambling Severity Index, which relate to financial hardship, relationship stress, and poor mental and general health. It will also ask about monthly expenditure on different types of gambling, from pokies through to scratch tickets and sports betting.

It is important to note, however, that due to the social stigma associated with reporting actual behaviour, survey results generally understate potential gambling issues.

The proximity research findings were emphatic: people living within 250 metres of a gambling venue were five per cent more likely to experience financial hardship than those living more than two kilometres from a venue, with younger people on a low income particularly vulnerable.

‘Living close to a venue increases gambling associated with those venues…’
Professor David Johnston

‘Living close to a venue increases gambling associated with those venues, not other types of gambling,’ explains Professor Johnston, diving down into the nuance. ‘Are they more likely to buy a scratchie ticket? No, we don’t find that. Do they gamble more on a casino-type game like blackjack? No, we find no relationship.

‘They aren’t happier, more social or more involved in their local communities because they live close to this entertainment and leisure venue. In contrast, they’re more likely to suffer increased financial hardship, with local men the most likely to experience harmful mental health effects.’

Lived experience and venue proximity

People with lived experience often show a startling awareness of the insidious role played by a conveniently located venue in impulsive gambling behaviour.

Lachlan McKenzie told Inside gambling, ‘I couldn’t walk past a pokies venue on my way home from the train station. I’d stop, have a few bets, have a drink. The more I drank the more I’d play the pokies. It got to the point where my partner said, “We’re moving”.’

‘I couldn’t walk past a pokies venue on my way home …’
Lachlan McKenzie

Jason shared his story on the Gambler’s Help website. ‘There were four venues between home and work and the number of times I said I had a flat tyre or was stopped by the police – all lies to explain away the time I spent playing pokies,’ he said.

Anna Bardsley noticed that she was ‘triggered by something as simple as being in the wrong lane when I drove home and turn into a venue car park’.

With data on regional and rural populations not used in these studies, Professor Johnston believes a separate analysis is needed to account for factors of distance rather than proximity, such as deliberately driving to a venue versus spontaneously dropping in.

The research aims to inform policy making through the evaluation of social and economic harms and benefits associated with gambling venues, with potential implications for the granting of gambling licenses.

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