the stigma is alive and well

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.

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7 Responses

  1. Zvyozdochka says:

    Should we start up arguing with Maiden again to see if she still believes there is no Ltd News campaign against attempts at poker machine controls?

  2. Libby Mitchell says:

    Very much the stigma against pokies gambling addicts was purposefully contrived to shame people into silence. We were ready listeners about stigma and gambling addiction, because our values and social sanctions grew up out of centuries of ‘normal’ gambling addiction that was in fact rare amongst a set of gamblers. None of us ever believed that we would fall into that rare ‘addict’ category….but then we had not met a purpose-built addiction machine like a pokie! Certainly it stopped many of us from ever daring to admit to addiction!

    Cocks, cards, coins, dogs and horses are not purposely designed to cause addiction! Pokies ARE! Our values were based upon old, obsolete understandings about gambling! That is what sets pokies addiction apart. Yet it is lumped together with other forms of gambling addiction on purpose…to increase the chance of reinforcing social stigma that in turn ensures shamed silence.

    Every time we hear that pokies addiction only affects 0.6% or 2% etc of a population we are being subtly encouraged to distance ourselves…to NOT be in that ‘degraded deviate’ group! We all want to be ‘the good people’ so naturally we do not want to be seen as part of any tiny minority of ‘social dropkicks’.

    Stigma against pokies addiction has served the gambling industry well. However in my mind there is as much stigma attached to pokies addiction as there is to being a Type 2 Diabetic…that is ALSO 95% ‘lifestyle-induced’! Yet Diabetics get sympathy, support etc…and pokies addicts are despised, degraded and silenced!

    A handy ploy for use by governments and the pokies industry? Maybe in the past…but perhaps no longer…as it will soon be well understood that even the 15% / 30% ‘addiction to pokies’ rates are way too low! Our ABS figures proved it. SO what happens when a MAJORITY [perhaps] of any class of people, ie pokies gamblers are all seen to be ‘deviate dropkicks’? Can so many people all be so deviate? Unlikely!

    The whole pokies gambling industry will then become stigmatized as it well deserves! My tip anyhow…but then I do not have millions of $$$ to use to influence social attitudes either! The ‘clubs as community donors’ image was set in place in expectation of that very outcome….in a lucrative and long-running industry ‘profile-raising’ campaign. In the end…society will get this right though! Pokies WILL be banned!

  3. EricInAdelaide says:

    And of course, an “associate professor of media studies” is eminently qualified to lecture us on addiction!

  4. Dramfire says:

    Dr Karen’s article shows a very limited understanding of poker machine addiction. Poker machine addicts do not necessarily gamble in multiple areas. Furthermore, poker machine manufacturers program poker machines to encourage compulsive behaviour. Clubs and pubs assist the addiction by providing a calculated environment.
    While I would agree that poker machine addict may start their addiction without any financial consideration, to label those suffering with the addiction as narcissistic is an unsafe diagnosis.
    I’d suggest to Dr Karen that she keep to applied work and keep away from clinical diagnosis. She has a right to her opinion but it is quite unprofessional to stigmatise those suffering from any addiction.
    Last, I agree with Tom that her article does little to contribute to the debate. In short, her article is a lazy effort because it lacks a research standard expected of an associate professor. I’s suggest the article has more to do with making an easy few dollars rather than a serious contribution.

  5. Alastair_Melb says:

    @Eric
    No but Brooks _is_ eminently qualified to run a media PR falsehoods-unlimited campaign which will, if the usual law of returns applies, be paid for in full at a later time and place by way of board appointments etc etc

  6. @njptower says:

    media studies – not psychology, hmmm. I know others have highlighted this but it is so glaringly pertinent.

    I am an accountant, so I can assure karen that the slower you play on a low value machine, the less you lose. there is no mandatory pre-commitment needed for low value machines as I understand it

  7. Cathy says:

    It would seem that this branch of the media is also very selective (when it wants to be) of what comments it will post. I saw that article as well and wrote a response (below) but it has obviously been rejected. I don’t see that I said anything offensive or off topic etc.

    Karen, in answer to your first question, at the very least it depends on how much that behaviour (either way) has been manipulated in the first place.
    Of the examples you gave, banning is not a consideration. Despite any laws, prejudice already existed toward these people and such laws were just a reflection of this. The manipulation and changing (through various means) of the wider community’s attitude and behaviour is what brought the real positive benefits to these people and in many regards is an ongoing process.

    Poker machines were a concern long before Andrew Wilkie came on board and were already the focus of the Productivity Commission report. Of their many recommendations specific to these machines the adoption of pre commitment was just one of them.

    Individual products that persistently cause notable levels of concern quite rightly will likely end up being subject to more stringent regulation and most reasonable people would accept this. If not, then no serious attempts should be made to rein in other individual gambling products until such times as they rake in around 12 billion dollars p.a. and consistently produce an overwhelming number of problem gamblers.

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