problem gambling – exposing the myth

There are a number of myths and preconceptions about problem gambling. For the most part, they are spread and kept alive by people who don’t know; they make assumptions, or repeat what they’ve been told by people they trust… people who should know better.

One such myth pops up almost daily. I see it in press releases, interviews and comments on media articles. I hear it given as proof that poker machine reforms won’t work; I stumble across it on political web sites. What is this myth?

That problem gamblers who play the pokies, when faced with limitations or restrictions on poker machines, will turn to other forms of gambling instead.

ClubsAustralia bigwigs Anthony Ball and Peter Newell repeat this myth every chance they get. Tony Windsor cites it as his primary concern about mandatory pre-commitment. Managers of gaming venues around the country have asserted this as fact in local newspapers. Mark Coulton stated it with authority on the National’s web site. Queensland’s Paul Lucas, NSW’s George Souris, the list goes on… and they’re all dead wrong.

Completely and utterly wrong. Just so there can be no confusion, let me reiterate this point.


The key here is poker machines. We’re not talking about people who are addicted to gambling in general; we’re talking about people who are addicted to poker machines in particular. There is NO evidence that poker machine addicts turn to other forms of gambling when they can’t play the pokies. Conversely, there is PLENTY of evidence that they do not.

Norway’s experience with banning slot machines and replacing them 18 months later with IVTs that had mandatory pre-commitment installed is one such point of evidence. I wrote about this recently, but in a nutshell, calls to gambling help services dropped by 62% when slot machines were banned. Over 90% of slot machine players surveyed said they did not turn to other forms of gambling. Over 90% were happy the slot machines were banned, or didn’t care. And there were no significant increases in ANY other form of gambling, across the board.

That’s Norway. How about something a little closer to home? Well, there’s this recent article about problem gamblers, where Dr Jason Pace of the Hills Clinic clearly states that problem gamblers tend to stick with a preferred method of gambling. Problem gambling research academic Dr Charles Livingstone asserted in his submission to the Joint Select Committee on Gambling that poker machine players did not migrate to other forms of gambling. The Productivity Commission came to the same conclusion after extensive research for last year’s report into gambling in Australia, with chairman Gary Banks stating “poker machine players tend to be poker machine players and are not all that likely to suddenly become internet based gambling players or punters on the horse races.” And I, in my own submission to the Joint Select Committee, made the following statement:

“Poker machine addicts will, for the most part, not transfer their gambling behaviours to another form of gambling.”

I stand by this claim. If this were not true, then how do you explain my own story? After years of gambling occasionally and responsibly, I started playing poker machines and quickly became addicted. That addiction lasted three years. Since managing to break this addiction, I have continued to gamble occasionally and responsibly. I have bet on the horses roughly twice in the past ten years. I have never gambled online or on sports. I have played poker (real-world poker, that is) once for money; from memory, the stakes were around the 10 cent mark. I play the same Powerball numbers every week. None of this suggests that I have transferred my gambling addiction to any other form of gambling.

As I said earlier, the important point here is the poker machines. They are different from any other form of gambling. They have been designed and refined over many years to encourage addictive gambling behaviours, and their use has been largely unregulated in Australia. The vast majority of problem gamblers in Australia are not problem gamblers in general, but poker machine problem gamblers. They will not shift their focus to another form of gambling simply because poker machines require a card and a spending limit to play; the assertion that they will is driven by industry and political need.

And it’s wrong.


3 Responses

  1. Libby Mitchell says:

    Excellent point Tom.

    It is interesting that for years there has been a lack of activity / progresss, based upon supposed ‘lack of evidence’regarding pokies, that should otherwise have supported safety reforms. Even researchers have called that issue regularly….so any clear pathway to action has been too often slowed down or disregarded.

    Now it is odd that when ‘the evidence’ CLEARLY says that poker machine gamblers do not as a rule transfer gambling addictions…the gambling industry and some others not only twist the evidence….but they totally ignore it? I wonder is the driver political and industrial need…. or greed? I guess both.

  2. cyenne says:

    I would like to make one point of clarification. In my article above, I stated “Problem gambling research academic Dr Charles Livingstone asserted in his submission to the Joint Select Committee on Gambling that poker machine players did not migrate to other forms of gambling.” I have since been in contact with Charles, and he’s provided me with the basis for this assertion. Dr Ingeborg Lund, a well known and respected gambling researcher from Norway, published her paper ‘Gambling Behaviour and the Prevalence of Gambling Problems in Adult EGM Gamblers when EGMs are Banned. A Natural Experiment’ in 2009. This is a thorough and high-quality paper on the issue, and is considered even more reliable than Jonny Engebø’s work in the same area.

    Dr Lund’s paper found that not only did EGM players NOT change to other forms of gambling… but that, in fact, gambling across the board reduced when EGMs were removed.

    Thanks Charles 🙂

  3. John Stansfield says:

    You suggest “For the most part, they are spread and kept alive by people who don’t know; they make assumptions, or repeat what they’ve been told by people they trust”
    Actually for the most part they are spread by a group of self interested individuals and organisations who profit from the lie and whose unequal staus in society would be threatened if the truth, that they benefit unfairly from misery and crime, were told

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