ACT survey: 14% of population affected by gambling harms

28 October 2019

Researchers in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have warned the state needs to have a serious discussion about the role of gambling in society after estimating that as much as 14% of its population has been negatively affected by gambling.

The 2019 ACT Gambling Survey, conducted by the Australian National University's Centre for Gambling Research and based on interviews with 10,000 adult residents of the state, believes as many as 44,000 people were impacted by their or someone else’s gambling in the year.

Centre for Gambling Research director and the survey’s lead author, Dr Marisa Paterson, said the results should prompt debate about the impact of gambling in the ACT.

"These results are not something we should walk away from and say 'we're ok here'," Dr Paterson said. "We need to seriously consider gambling and its role in our community.”

Participants were asked for detailed information on their gambling participation, expenditure and harm suffered as a result of gambling over the previous 12 months. Sub-sets within the group of 10,000 were also asked about attitudes towards gambling and seeking help when it created problems, as well as questions on their physical and mental wellbeing, financial hardship and online expenditure.

Based on the 10,000 sample, researchers estimate that up to 60% of the ACT’s adult population had participated in at least one form of gambling in the past year. This was particularly high for males, of whom an estimated 64% gambled, compared to 56% for female respondents. Those aged between 45 and 59 years were the most likely to gamble out of all age categories, with 64% saying they had done so.

It also found that men were significantly more likely to develop gambling problems than women. Based on the harms set out on the Problem Gambling Severity index (PGSi), 10% of the ACT population reported suffering from at least one symptom.

This, researchers noted, equated to around 34,000 adults classed as at-risk or problem gamblers. Low-risk gamblers made up 7% of the population (around 23,000 people); with 2.5% (8,000 people) classed as moderate-risk, and 0.8% (3,000 people) classed as problem gamblers.

Based on the PSGi, 1.2% of males were problem gamblers, compared to 0.4% of female respondents. In particular, males under 30 were more likely to be at risk. The survey uncovered associations between certain forms of gambling and increased levels of risk on the PSGi, namely table games (41% at-risk) and sports betting (39%). However, it added, there was nothing to suggest that gambling online, whether exclusively or not, was a reliable indicator of problems.

The 2019 survey marked the first time the Short Gambling Harm Screen (SGHS) was used to assess the level of harm suffered by gamblers. Rather than determining a players’ risk profile, as the PSGi does, the SGHS looks to ascertain the ill effects of gambling, by gathering information about the exact issues people have experienced.

As defined by the SGHS, around 10% of the ACT adult population had experienced at least one harm from gambling in the past year, which fell to 16% when factoring in harms from others’ gambling.

The most common harms reported were a reduction in available spending money (suffered by 5.6% of adults) and reduced savings (4%). Again, those affected were disproportionately male, with twice as many reporting harm as women.

Aside from those directly affected by gambling, 5% of ACT adults (approximately 17,000 adults) said they had been affected by family members’ or friends’ play. Females made up 58% of those affected by someone else’s habit, leading to issues such as arguments, breakdown in communication, feelings of anger, reduction of trust, and stress or anxiety.

However, 14% said they were unaware of where to turn for help, and just 2% of gamblers had sought help for issues arising from their play over the past year. People were generally unaware of what resources were available to them, with 50% saying they would search online if they felt they needed support, with just 15% likely to call a helpline, and 9% planning to contact Gamblers Anonymous.

Despite the high level of engagement in gambling, researchers found that attitudes towards the past time were predominantly negative, especially in relation to electronic gaming machines (EGMS), or poker machines. In total, 64% of respondents said these devices did more harm than good for their community.

People were also overwhelmingly in favour of introducing restrictions on play, with 71% in favour of limit-setting, compared to 13% against and 16% neither for nor against. There was also strong support for reducing maximum stakes on EGMs from its current $10, with the average limit suggested $6.92.

Paterson noted that EGM use remained the most reliable indicator of individuals developing unhealthy habits.

The survey is conducted every five years, with its next iteration to be published in 2024.