Playing or paying the odds
4 August 2023
Millions of dollars are spent every year convincing Victorians that gambling is glamorous; that it means expensive cars, endless partying and easy money—that it means winning.
The lure of gambling appears to be working, especially amongst young people. The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation (VRGF) has recently labelled those aged 18 to 24 as one of the most at-risk groups for gambling harm, with up to 80% having taken part in the last twelve months. What they might dismiss as a routine part of sport or a night out with friends has been normalised to the extent that they may not recognise the sinister ramifications of their risky betting habits.
Yet, behind this very curtain of grandeur hides a tragic reality: that for most, gambling is not a means of winning, but more so losing. For one in five Victorian gamblers, it is a debilitating and life-ruining addiction characterised by family breakdowns, substance abuse and mental illness, with roots tracing to early exposure in adolescence and childhood.
Australians are among some of the heaviest gamblers in the world, per capita, with New South Wales, Northern Territory and Victoria ranking highest in the country, according to research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
On average, Victorians spend $1300 per capita on betting annually, making it the costliest addiction in the state, even compared to alcohol and tobacco. The estimated social cost is around $7 billion, a price tag that is only growing following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and the re-opening of pubs and clubs.
While not all Victorian gamblers are necessarily ‘problem gamblers’, defined as someone who spends more time, money or effort than they can afford on the practice, it does encapsulate over half of them, and they face issues like relationship breakdown, financial loss, and physical and psychological distress. This often co-occurs with other serious conditions, according to Victoria’s Auditor-General, with around 40% of problem gamblers suffering from mental illness and 65% consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol.
Indications are that younger demographics are also being affected by gambling harm, both directly and indirectly. Despite age restrictions, research suggests that increasing numbers of young people under 18 years old have taken part in some form of wagering, with a small percentage meeting the clinical criteria for ‘problem gambling’. Alongside this direct exposure, many young people also live with others who experience gambling harm, further endangering them given the high rates of violence and financial abuse in such households.
To address this, programs implemented by VRGF have included secondary school education schemes, media campaigns such as ‘Love the Game, Not the Odds’, and community engagement projects.
More recently, the Victorian Auditor-General Office’s (VAGO) published two reports: Follow up of Regulating Gambling and Liquor (2019) and Reducing the Harm Caused by Gambling (2021), which made recommendations to both the Victorian Government and VRGF. The majority of these proposed actions were expected to have been completed by July 2022.
In April this year, the Victorian Parliament’s Public Accounts and Estimates Committee announced a new inquiry, with the aim of investigating how successfully these audit recommendations have addressed gambling harm in Victoria. The Committee is taking a particular focus on disproportionately affected groups such as young people, regional Victorians, culturally and linguistically diverse and Indigenous communities.
Committee Chair, Sarah Connolly, reflected on her own previous misconceptions of gambling as a young person.
'It was a stigma that I had,' she said. 'I used to see my nan turning up to the bowls club to put five cents into the pokies. She never lost a lot of money, but she never won anything.'
Connolly emphasised how rapidly gambling has changed due to the advancement of technology and online betting. She stressed how easily accessible it has become for tech-savvy adolescents and young adults.
While Victorians aged 35 and above are still primarily betting through non-digital means, the volume of online gambling amongst young people is increasing at alarming rates. New forms of betting, including eSports, fantasy sports and novelty games are rising in popularity among young people.
'The way that young people are being targeted has changed. It’s come through digital technology and social media… It’s really easy [for them] to sit there and, at a push of a button, be able to bet on something,' Connolly said. 'Through apps and social media, you don’t even have to leave your house.'
The recently launched inquiry aims to quell the increasing rates of gambling harm by following up on the actions that VAGO proposed to tackle the issue, especially among at-risk groups. An important aim is to take a more holistic perspective on betting, focusing on environmental factors which exacerbate harm and ensuring accountability amongst gambling institutions and companies. This includes investigating accessibility to online betting, as well as analysing how and why rates have grown following the pandemic.
'It’s always really important to hear from young people,' Connolly said. 'They are more vulnerable, they’re forming their ideas and learning about how the world works. It is distressing to see the gambling industry targeting younger people and getting them hooked on machines.'
As rates of gambling harm continue to climb in Victoria, the Committee believes it is more necessary than ever that young people are given the opportunity to contribute to and inform the discussions which involve them. A youth roundtable scheduled for early August will be one way in which young voices can be heard.
If you or someone you know is affected by gambling harm, or any of the other topics raised in this article, contact:
Phone: 1800 858 858 or 1800 262 376 (Youthline)
About the Author
A participant in the Parliament Express program conducted by the Parliament of Victoria in partnership with Express Media. The program provided mentoring and engagement experiences, leading to a series of articles written by young Victorians for the Victorian Parliament's website.