The Queensland Hotels Association’s “issues brief” on gambling reform (reported in Crikey yesterday) utilises classic tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry — misinformation, unfounded argument, and outright lies.

In its brief, QHA puts out several standard industry lines about why pre-commitment won’t be effective. These points have also recently appeared in statements by some state governments and other gambling industry lobbies. We respond to some of these below, based on our engagement with evidence, rather than on the protection of vested interest.

1. Problem gamblers will simply set unrealistic limits.

Almost all problem gamblers have lucid moments where they reflect on the situation they’re in, and try to find a way out. At such a stage, an effective pre-commitment system will provide an important tool to find that escape route, and will substantially reduce the time to recovery. Many problem gamblers support this scheme and are crying out for ways to support safer gambling.  Those beginning to struggle with a gambling problem will be greatly assisted in managing it, and even regular untroubled gamblers, who often report excessive spending, will almost certainly find their spending much easier to predict and control. Importantly, pre-commitment will greatly reduce the uptake of problem gambling. And for the first time, pokie gamblers will be able to determine how much they’re prepared to spend on their “entertainment”.

2. Pre-commitment is a big-brother approach to gambling — ordinary punters won’t register.

We already live in a cashless society and use cards for a range of purposes — withdrawing money, buying groceries, using public transport, borrowing a book from a library, hiring a DVD, earning loyalty points. Many gamblers already have online betting accounts that require them to register sensitive personal information, and which track their gambling activity in fine detail. The Wilkie proposal would not require central storage of player gambling data. The card would be easy to obtain, using the same level of ID required to borrow a DVD. It would provide a tool to allow people to much better manage and make better individual decisions about their gambling activity. Under the Wilkie committee’s proposals, recreational players won’t even need a card to play low-risk machines, and research demonstrates that they won’t notice any difference.

3. Pre-commitment will hurt the gambling business, especially smaller clubs

Clubs in Australia rely on the pokies, on average, for 61% of their overall revenue. Unfortunately, at least 40% of that comes from people with a serious gambling problem. A business model built on siphoning money that should be spent on food and housing from the pockets of vulnerable, often already disadvantaged punters and their families is unsustainable. Not only is it unethical, it entrenches disadvantage and costs taxpayers money. The estimated implementation costs of the pre-commitment system are grossly overestimated by the industry, but even at that inflated level only equate to about a quarter of losses on pokies in Australia last year. And those small clubs that frequently claim that they have no problem gamblers among their user group should be unconcerned. If their claims are correct, their revenue will be largely unaffected. Wilkie has also proposed deferring implementation for small clubs until 2018, allowing them to turn over machines in a normal replacement cycle.

4. We need more evidence — at least pre-commitment trials should be conducted

Evidence from Queensland, South Australia, Norway and Nova Scotia shows that voluntary pre-commitment is much less effective than a mandatory scheme. Australians have been world leaders on tobacco, seat belts and gun control, and there’s no reason we can’t do it again with gambling. Inaction is costly — in human and economic terms. Suggesting that a trial is necessary is a delaying tactic, especially given that the possibility of a trial in Tasmania (the most useful and likely site) has been torpedoed by the poker machine industry’s refusal to participate. In any event, any such trial would take a minimum of three years. In that time, $14.1 billion of harm would be done to the Australian economy, hundreds of thousands of people would develop a gambling problem with all its associated harm and suffering, and millions of others would be adversely affected.  The industry would also pocket upwards of $36 billion in gambler’s losses, and problem and at-risk gamblers would lose $21.6 billion.

There are many other tactics that the gambling industry resorts to in defence of its profits — developing cosy, mutually lucrative relationships with governments, funding researchers to produce favourable opinions and “evidence”, and of course misleading the public through misinformation campaigns. Overall, the Wilkie reforms provide a reasonable, non-prohibitionist response to the harms created by an industry that clearly believes its profits are more important than the well-being of its customers. Their implementation will result in significant economic and social benefits for Australia, and are very well justified in a public health sense.

This story is the latest installment in Crikey’s series Last Bets — examining just how hooked our country is on having a flutter.

Peter Fray

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