Addiction is, by and large, a secretive thing. When you have an addiction you hide it, concealing both the problem and the effects from the world around you. It’s a course of action driven primarily by shame and self-loathing, and it’s incredibly hard to overcome.
Problem gambling, and poker machine addiction in particular, is no exception. In fact, it’s hard to think of another form of addiction that is so widely reviled, so strongly stigmatised as poker machine addiction. There is a widely-held belief that pokie addicts are not addicts at all; that they choose, every day, to go out and blow their money in an irresponsible binge of gambling without thought of the consequences. Poker machine addicts are often characterised as stupid, lazy, uneducated, irresponsible, thoughtless, reckless… the list goes on.
Is it any wonder then that pokie addicts hide their problems? That they don’t seek help until their worlds have been completely destroyed… and sometimes not even then? The stigma of being addicted to playing poker machines is a terrible thing, and while there are many who understand, sympathise, or at least recognise the difficulties involved in facing up to it, there remains a strong school of thought that places all of the blame, all of the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the addict.
I’ve written before, many times, about this stigma, and the problems of public perception with regards to poker machine addiction. And over the past year or so that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve seen a growing sense of understanding, of realisation in the community that this addiction is something more than simply a matter of choice for the addicted. I take heart from that.
And of course personal responsibility is important. It’s crucial. But addiction undermines responsibility in many, many ways… and the industry and the government also have a responsibility, to their patrons and constituents. That also cannot be ignored.
But the opposing point of view is still alive and well. It underpins the gambling industry’s campaign against poker machine reforms, and much of the political opposition as well. And today’s article by Dr Karen Brooks in the Courier-Mail is a prime example.
Dr Brooks, an associate professor of media studies at Southern Cross University, poses the question: is it really possible to change people’s behaviour by changing the law? Yet her position on this issue is made crystal clear in the opening paragraphs. In no more than a few lines of text, Dr Brooks mentions prohibition, illegal homosexuality, race and gender based segregation… and poker machine reforms.
Hello, stigma. Nice to see you back.
How the hell can anyone seriously equate poker machine reforms with banning alcohol? With banning homosexuality? With enforced segregation? It’s a disgusting and blatantly biased position, and yet it’s only the start.
Dr Brooks goes on to describe the reforms as nothing more than a means for the ALP to form government, being sold “on the idea that it will help control problem gambling”. She misrepresents the reforms (doesn’t everyone?), incorrectly describing what they entail. She describes the “outrage” that the legislation (which doesn’t exist yet, although she doesn’t mention that) has caused, while failing to mention that this outrage is driven by the gambling industry and fueled by the media.
And then, while questioning the validity of the reforms, she casually offers up this:
“There will always be stupid, narcissistic people who care little for the consequences of their gambling actions.”
Right, Dr. Brooks. Because poker machine addicts are stupid. Narcissistic, even. They play and play and play, and they don’t care about the consequences. It’s their choice.
This kind of hateful characterisation, this breathtakingly ignorant dismissal of addiction is abhorrent. Dr Brooks may be an associate professor, but her ignorance of the mechanics of poker machine addiction is evident.
So too is her agenda. She goes on to discuss human rights, and whether the reforms will work, or simply push addicts to other forms of gambling. Maybe she should have asked someone who actually researches this area, like Dr Charles Livingstone, who has written many times that this kind of transference rarely happens for poker machine addicts.
And while she pays lip-service to the concept of helping problem gamblers, she later states that “we cannot legislate against addiction, stupidity and selfishness”.
Dr Brooks’ article will have little or no impact on whether or not poker machine reform becomes a reality; but the tone, the position that she takes in her article will stay with many readers long after the detail is forgotten. That’s the way emotive messages work. It is articles such as this that continue to reinforce the stigma that surrounds poker machine addiction.