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Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform - 03/05/2012 - Prevention and treatment of problem gambling

WILSON, Ms Penelope (Penny), Chief Executive Officer, Responsible Gambling Advocacy Centre

[11:49]

CHAIR: I now welcome Ms Penny Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of the Responsible Gambling Advocacy Centre. I invite you to make a brief opening statement before the committee proceeds to questions.

Ms Wilson : You all have my submission. You have heard a lot of points from our submission from other expert witnesses this morning, so I thought I might open the conversation by talking about gambling education. But first, in the interests of full disclosure—as Dr Thomas discussed—as you know from my previous appearances, RGAC, as we call ourselves for short, is a non-profit company limited by guarantee, fully funded by the Victorian government, with an independent board led by chair Fiona McLeod, who is now the former Energy and Water Ombudsman of Victoria. We exist to raise the community's understanding of responsible gambling issues. We do that in a way that allows them to access these very complex matters and issues more easily and in language that is more readily understandable to members of the public.

We talk about education on gambling because it is now one of the most common questions we are asked. We are frequently asked about how to talk to young people about gambling, by parents, teachers, principals, schools, sporting club people, people in the community who gamble and people in the community who choose not to gamble.

Like Dr Thomas, we think that gambling is now part of the community experience; it is normalised in that sense. Even if you choose not to gamble—if you watch commercial television, listen to the radio, even public radio, move through the streets of any city, or go to a sporting oval in a remote country town—you cannot escape gambling advertising or indeed venue signage.

Young people we now talk to between the ages of 18 and 21 I refer to as the 'pokies generation'. They have grown up in Victoria with pokies venues. They cannot actually remember when there were not pokies in the pubs and clubs that are around them.

We talk about gambling education from a public health perspective. You have heard from some experts this morning. We see this in a very practical way. It is about increasing the capacity of people to respond to the challenges of the environment around them to their wellbeing and to their health. We believe that education for children on gambling is now necessary so they can make appropriate choices on gambling and fully understand the issues around gambling, problem gambling and responsible gambling. But this education needs to be seated in resilience. Children need to grow up with an understanding of the concepts of advertising—of how people are trying to manipulate them into buying products—and have critical thinking skills about issues.

This is not education about how to gamble. It is not just maths and stats; it is about the whole person and navigating through pressures that come about from our sociocultural settings and by simply living in our community. We come to this view based on evidence of public health approaches to other difficult issues, such as sexual health, drugs and alcohol.

We completely respect the choice of parents and schools who may choose not to talk about gambling and who may teach abstinence from gambling as the appropriate behavioural choice. But we consider this to be an ethical and moral stance not a public health approach. There is already a curriculum offered in Victoria. We had no part in developing this curriculum; it is accredited by the Victorian Essential Learning Standards and was developed by the Consumer Affairs and the Office of Gaming and Racing in Victoria's Department of Justice.

The title of this program is 'Responsible gambling: building resilience for young learners' and it is for students in years 9 to 12. It is a stand-alone resource that is offered as part of the 'Consumer stuff' suite of subjects Consumer Affairs offers. It is taught in around 50 schools in Melbourne. I have talked to many of the schools where this is offered and they see it very positively.

As Dr Thomas noted, it is not unusual for children to gamble, particularly using apps on smart phones. It is not unusual for children to do this and not understand that they are not meant to be doing this. It is not unusual for people under 18 to think that they are not taking a risk gambling, which is of great concern to the people around them, and that is something about understanding risk at appropriate age.

So I wanted to make that comment, because it has been rather a hot topic down here in Melbourne. We have Responsible Gambling Awareness Week the week after next, and the focus this year is on youth and gambling for this reason. We now think it is necessary. The community, the government and even industry think that we need to talk to young people about gambling.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Wilson.

Senator XENOPHON: I will pose the same question I posed to Dr Thomas. How do we increase the 10 per cent of people the Productivity Commission says seek help for their gambling problems? How do we get that way up there? What do you think will work? Stigma was mentioned by Dr Thomas. But what practical measures are there? You mentioned a generation that does not know anything other than poker machines in pubs and clubs in Victoria. What are practical measures to get people through the door to get the help that they need when they have a problem?

Ms Wilson : We totally agree with Dr Thomas about the stigma issue. I think the committee started out by hearing from people like Mr Tom Cummings this morning. I have heard Tom's story in many different ways many different times and it never fails to affect me and it is similar when I talk to other people who are self-identified problem gamblers about what they have gone through and what they experience. Learning from people who have faced the problem is certainly an important thing. Then you have to apply that to measures, policy settings, availability and access to Gamblers Help services.

I hear from our colleagues in our gambling help person-to-person delivery area in Victoria that they are fully stretched. There are now sometimes waiting lists to see them and receive their services. There is the national phone number, and people are filtered through that if they want to proceed to person-to-person counselling, but sometimes there can be a delay through sheer numbers.

We also know that a lot of people do not come directly to gambling counselling. Mr Cummings mentioned that he had seen a relationships counsellor first. That is what we hear as well. They particularly come through financial counselling or family counselling referring people on to gambling counselling. So we fully support the public health model of an integrated approach to treating people's problems, because then you can make sure that people are referred to gambling counselling if that becomes identified as the primary issue.

So knowing where there is help, making sure there is lots of help, destigmatising that help and making sure that from a young age people are aware that there is help available and you can seek it is very valued. But we need more than just a message of 'Get help', because people will say, 'Well, I don't have a problem; I don't need help.'

Senator XENOPHON: In Sydney yesterday we heard evidence from some counsellors. But it was their understanding that the last television campaign asking people to come forward was about 10 years ago. The committee will get confirmation of that. I know in South Australia when there has been an effective television campaign, you have a lot of people coming forward and there is a spike in numbers. When was the last time Victoria had a full-on television campaign? Was it 'Think of what you're really gambling with'?

Ms Wilson : No, I think there have been more recent ones than that. There were some that ran towards the end of last year on online gambling. I think Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre will talk about that when they appear this afternoon.

Senator XENOPHON: But in terms of a full-on campaign to get people to come forward on poker machines, which is the source of about 85 per cent of problem gambling in Australia, when was the last time in Victoria?

Ms Wilson : Last year there was the 'Know the odds' campaign, which was very successful in the evaluations that I have been allowed to see. That covered a range of gambling, including poker machines. As I understand it, that was very successful in driving people to Victorian gambling help services.

Senator XENOPHON: Was there a spike in numbers?

Ms Wilson : I understand there was and that there usually is. As Major Halse said as part of the Churches Gambling Taskforce, recalling the message and a spike in help does not necessarily translate to ongoing behaviour change. So I think the bigger question is: do these campaigns lead to ongoing behaviour change and not just initial help seeking? Do people continue to seek help? What is the outcome of this help seeking? I think you do see spikes after campaigns, and there have been fairly regular campaigns in Victoria. That may be different in New South Wales. I cannot remember the last campaign in New South Wales, and we have looked into that. I think there are a number of bigger questions around this as well.

Senator XENOPHON: You said resources for Gambling Help services are stretched. They are coping with the 10 per cent that come forward, but if you want to increase that figure to say 40 per cent or 50 per cent the infrastructure or resources are not there to deal with those people. That is a dilemma, isn't it?

Ms Wilson : I think appropriate training has been raised as an issue many times.

Senator XENOPHON: At venues or of staff?

Ms Wilson : Of counsellors. Of people who can then take on those case loads. So there is the funding of Gamblers Help, and there is a large commitment in Victoria, but perhaps that needs to be considered again. There is the training of people so they have the appropriate skills to take on the counselling in this area—and the employment and the integrating in the public health models. I think that Professor Dan Lubman who is appearing this afternoon can give you some information on that.

Senator XENOPHON: We need to address the issue of capacity building?

Ms Wilson : I think that it is a question. We often get asked. We get asked all kinds of questions, because we are easy to find on the internet; our phone number is locatable, as opposed to, say, the regulator or the Department of Justice's phone numbers. So we get asked all the time, 'Where can I go to do a gambling counselling qualification?' Luckily, our colleagues in that sector help us out with those answers but there are actually not many places you can do that specifically.

Senator XENOPHON: If you made the machines safer and reduced the demand, that would solve the problem, wouldn't it? If you did not have as many people falling off the cliff in the first place, you would not need to have as many counsellors.

Ms Wilson : I think if there were not as many problem gamblers you would not need as many counsellors.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

Ms BRODTMANN: Can you give us a brief outline of what is covered in those school campaigns? I am also interested in whether there has been any evaluation of the campaigns in terms of going from awareness to attitude to behavioural change? Can you give us an idea about what worked and what did not?

Ms Wilson : I will give you a broad overview. I was not involved in designing the campaign. I have had a presentation from Consumer Affairs on the campaign. Perhaps the secretary can contact Victorian Consumer Affairs and they can give you some very detailed answers. The broad curriculum is accessible through their public website. You can look at it there, as it was presented to us and what we have heard is being taught.

Overall in Victoria there is a concept called 'life skills'. It is about resilience and it is taught from prep to year 12. It is situated in that broad resilience framework. The education about gambling itself comes in at around year-9 age, which is something like 13 to 15 years old in Victoria. They have already addressed concepts of bullying, manipulation by that age in different ways. And it is not just in one subject. It is addressed through a number of different subjects. They look at critical thinking skills. They look at the impact of advertising and what advertising is trying to get you to do. Then they look at more specific contextual questions.

Very recently I was contacted by a school in Melbourne that was looking at this as a current affairs issue, running a series of debates for year 8 and 9 students—who are roughly around 13 to 15 years of age—and wanting some good information. We were able to assist them by pointing out information, such as Dr Thomas's work, that was suitable for children of that age group to look at when preparing for their debates.

That is what the curriculum does. It brings in broad concepts at the appropriate age levels. Of course, heading towards year 12, where students are 17 and 18 years old, they are heading towards actual campaigns, actual gambling concepts and the risk they are taking. They are looking at it in the context of being a risk-taking behaviour: 'You are taking a risk when you are gambling. It is a legitimate entertainment choice if you are of age; however, you need to understand what you are doing when you do it and that all the advertising around gambling is trying to sell you a service.'

In terms of evaluation, I have not seen any. I have only had anecdotal feedback from the schools that are running it. I am sure it has been done. Alongside this curriculum, as part of any approved curriculum, there is very substantial professional development for the teachers running it. So there is always evaluation built into those professional training situations as well. So I am sure that Consumer Affairs can assist with that information specifically.

Ms BRODTMANN: How long has it been running?

Ms Wilson : I understand it has been running since about 2009 in schools.

Ms BRODTMANN: So there is a period that we can evaluate. Thank you.

Mr FRYDENBERG: Thank you, Ms Wilson for your submission and for your evidence. Point 3.9 in your submission says:

… the take‐up of help by problem gamblers appears to be relatively low and suggest that better targeted awareness and provision of help resources would improve this.

What is the No. 1 thing you would do to improve the take-up?

Ms Wilson : I think Dr Thomas addressed this. It is about the time of the advertising of seeking help, not advertising gambling. We know that messages that are negative and identify people as problem gamblers do not drive people to seek help. The advertisements often do not work effectively for the target audience they are seeking to engage with because people in a problem-gambling phase do not identify themselves as problem gamblers. The committee knows from previous inquiries that there is a lot of fluidity between problem gamblers, high risk gamblers and moderate gamblers—there is a lot of movement. Campaigns which encourage seeking help, but in a much more positive way, and campaigns that locate the issue not just with the individual but also in a wider context to make people feel more comfortable about seeking help would probably be the No. 1 change. The No. 2 change would be about better preventative education so that people are aware of issues and are not so frightened to seek help by the time they get to a situation in which they need to do it.

Mr FRYDENBERG: If it is a case of change the tone, what is an example of best practice there? Who do you think has done it best?

Ms Wilson : In Canada there are some very good examples, particularly in the problem gambling treatment agencies in Ontario, which co-fund with some other bodies what they call the Public Health Gambling Project. They have a long-established project which is a partnership between the University of Toronto, the Ontario centre and the YMCA to deliver preventative gambling education to students, to parents, to schools and to communities. Those academics who run this will soon be in Melbourne. It is a very practical program. It has had long-term evaluation applied. It involves the students and their parents so that everyone is aware of what is being discussed and taught and it destigmatises the whole concept as an issue.

One of their most successful campaigns has been an animation, developed by young people for young people, which is available on YouTube. We have a link to this on our website under Gambling Issues-Youth and we have a compiled set of links particularly to the public health and gambling project. If you go to YouTube and search 'public health-gambling' it will pop up as a channel and you can look at this very impressive animation, which offers two contrasting pathways through life and gambling, developed by students for students. That model is impressive because they have faced all the kinds of issues and questions that we are facing here now: is it appropriate; will it encourage people to gamble; to what age group do you start using words like 'gambling' and listing 'choice'? They have looked at that for some years and I would encourage the committee to look at that very closely.

Mr FRYDENBERG: With your recommendation 1.6—Incentives should be eliminated from gambling industry marketing—could you elaborate for us what that means and how do we prevent that?

Ms Wilson : In that context we are talking about incentives to gamble further. We are not necessarily talking about much softer incentives but those whereby gambling a certain amount, or gambling for a certain amount of time, or spending a certain amount gain you extra credits. Incentives where to start using—

Mr FRYDENBERG: Like a loyalty program?

Ms Wilson : Not so much a loyalty program. There are incentives offered where if you start using a particular gambling online service you are offered free credits to that online gambling service. It has a different status in different states, according to the law in different states. What can be offered in one state is not the same as what can be offered in Victoria, for instance. We are talking about direct incentives that encourage increased gambling or a return to gamble.

Mr FRYDENBERG: So, no incentives?

Ms Wilson : Well, no incentives of an increase or return to gamble. We are not talking about necessarily an incentive to go to a venue and have a free cup of tea. We are talking about an incentive that you will get $20 or $200 worth of credits—as we have seen—for taking up gambling with a particular vendor of gambling.

Mr FRYDENBERG: Right. Thank you.

Senator DI NATALE: I want to return to that notion of putting a fence at the top of a cliff and, to carry that analogy further, making the road a little safer. In your submission, you argue in 3.7 that the safety of a gambling product is critical. While this is not the focus of your submission, you do mention issues such as spin rates, note acceptors, maximum bet limits, the size of jackpots and the role of features such as losses dressed up as wins. Do you support action on each of those measures?

Ms Wilson : As a whole package, definitely. We are in favour of measures that make gambling a safer choice. All of those things would make gambling a safer choice for consumers in terms of financial harm minimisation and making it a more plain product to understand.

Senator DI NATALE: Would I take it then to mean that both mandatory precommitment and $1 bet limits would be proposals that you would support?

Ms Wilson : We support initiatives that are really simple for the consumer to use. We do not think initiatives that are not simple for the consumer to use will have a great impact. We also support initiatives that apply to everyone. We gave evidence at the first inquiry on precommitment. What was proposed at the time was quite complex. It would need to be a simple product. One of the most accessed information sheets on our website is simply about what precommitment is—not what we think of it, not what the different positions are. We find that consumers do not particularly understand these words and this notion very well. The concern is it is so complex it is really difficult for consumers to engage with, to support and to use.

Senator DI NATALE: Would you support the much simpler proposal of $1 bet limits, and jackpot limits, given that that is what most recreational punters do? It obviously does not involve any change in gambling behaviour. There is nothing in particular to understand, except that there is a limit placed on jackpots.

Ms Wilson : There are widely varying estimates of the cost. It is actually very hard to get the accurate cost. The cost of altering the machines has been estimated at as low as $2,000 by our South Australian colleagues. Industry would have you believe it is millions and millions of dollars. We suspect that this is inflated and that there are costs in there that will simply be legislated out. The whole impact of a change is something we do need to consider. The people who work in venues, and even the industry, are part of the community. Our brief is to look at the community and responsible gambling, not just one part of the community and responsible gambling. We have not done a detailed analysis of that because it is very hard to get correct information. I repeat that measures that are the same for every consumer are easier for the consumer to cope with and understand. So that is always advantageous.

Senator DI NATALE: The other issues you raise are around access to whatever form of gambling you choose and advertising. Do you think that, with access to both poker machines and online options, we have reached a point of saturation?

Ms Wilson : You might think that, but I still get offers of new online gambling apps everyday on my phone. I look at these as part of my work. Seemingly unlimited opportunities to gamble are offered to you all of the time. In terms of physical venues, I think the approach that is being supported was mentioned before by Dr Thomas. It is not about access, but convenience. One would hope that that is taken into account when venues are being designed and located in the community. In Victoria that is capped; distribution may change but there will not be more machines. But I am not sure we have reached anywhere near the limit of what is offered online or by phone in terms of gambling.

Senator DI NATALE: The next question is about advertising. You have quoted Dr Thomas's paper about the level of advertising during a sporting event. Do you feel there is a need for significant regulation in this area to minimise the exposure of, in particular, young children to gambling, largely sports betting, in that setting?

Ms Wilson : We do, and we gave extensive evidence on this at the last inquiry. We have developed a concept that we simply call 'family friendly viewing times'. This was to denote that we saw a need for an extension to what is now the children's viewing hour on Monday to Friday to a wider time frame. The reasons for that are that children do not view television for just one hour a week anymore and families with children often view sporting events which are played at night or on weekends—and we do know that there is a high take-up of families watching those events. We are very concerned about that and we do think there is a need for action.

We have been involved in discussions with industry, providers, sporting clubs and venues. They can take steps themselves that do not require legislation yet. You have alluded to the fact that some of those steps have been taken already. We think this is very concerning. It is part of a picture that we do not fully understand yet. There needs to be more investigation. We are actually part of the gambling messages project mentioned by Dr Thomas, which looks at what children take in and how that impacts on them. Because of language changes and because of how different sports are discussed—not just football but also netball, for instance—children have gone over that tipping point. They now discuss sporting events in terms of horse racing language. They talk about the odds, not the chances, and that is a really big shift in society. You have children growing up without a concept that you do actually have a choice not to gamble, that betting on your team is not part of the fan experience if you do not choose it to be. So that is very concerning, and we do see the need for some limitation around that.

Senator DI NATALE: I suppose the second issue is that you specifically talk about TV advertising. What about going to a ground and seeing logos plastered around the venue? Do you think that is also an issue?

Ms Wilson : We do think that is an issue. That whole big picture is what is raised by the community with us all the time. At every meeting, at every event, no matter what I go there to talk on, that comes up very quickly in the first few questions or in the discussion that is had. People are very concerned. People who are gamblers, who really enjoy gambling, are very concerned. It seems to come down to the fact that parents particularly want some sort of choice about what they talk to their children about. It is easy, if you see an advertisement, to say, 'That is an advertisement that is trying to make you buy a product or do this or that, and this is my view on that advertisement.' When it is embedded—when it is logos and signage all around you, when it is odds in a sporting call, when it is a bit of a joke at the end of a discussion on the odds in a sports radio show—'Oh, yeah, gamble responsibly'—that is much harder for parents to talk to their children about and that does make people very concerned and a bit angry.

We know from work like Dr Thomas's that, for instance, the live odds broadcast is a very small portion of the mix of gambling, advertising and sponsorship, but it is one of the things that parents are most concerned about, because they cannot divide it up to talk to their children about it very easily. We were very pleased, for instance, when the MCG Trust made their decision not to allow that, and we let them know that we were very pleased with that decision.

Senator DI NATALE: So was I. Thank you.

CHAIR: Has the move to reduce the maximum bet in Victoria—or maximum stake, more accurately—been easy enough and well received?

Ms Wilson : It happened before the existence of our company, but from our historical analysis it went through rather smoothly. Looking back, our staff found there was lots of very robust discussion at the time, but it was achieved and the regulatory measures were put into place to achieve that.

CHAIR: Can you recall whether it met its time lines and its estimated costs and so on? Was it technically difficult or was it pretty straightforward?

Ms Wilson : This is just from my memory. We will have to get back to you with some of those details; we can look that up for you. Talking to industry colleagues, the technical difficulties were probably based on the technology of the time and it depended how old the machines were that they were dealing with. Some of the machines that were close to date at the time I gather were not a problem to change; the older machines were.

CHAIR: Ms Wilson, it would be fascinating to learn more about that process, particularly as we discuss these days whether or not to further reduce the maximum stake on all machines nationally. If you would take that on notice, it would be good if you could provide some sort of information on that.

Ms Wilson : We will do that, and I would also encourage the committee to contact the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation and the Department of Justice Office of Gaming and Racing, who actually were in charge of those changes. I am sure that they would be able to give you the correct information.

CHAIR: Thank you. Do you have a view on the federal government's proposed poker machine reforms that are now being much remarked upon, in essence, to roll out voluntary precommitment on poker machines nationally and to hold a trial of mandatory precommitment in the ACT?

Ms Wilson : We did make a submission to the government, particularly on the nature of the trial and the methodology around the trial. Being able to manoeuvre the machines quickly is something that we certainly support. With any technology that is coming out, it is very close to being superseded by the time it is on the market. So being able to change for different regulatory needs is absolutely essential for cost to the community and for people understanding how it is all going to work. With the methodology, there has been discussion around that. We were very concerned that it is a very robust and independent methodology, that there is an ability to make a meaningful contrast with different types of precommitment, and of course that contrast would have been with mandatory precommitment. So it is a very difficult question and there have been lots of issues raised about that by people who know more about these things.

CHAIR: Do you personally have an optimistic, pessimistic or agnostic view on the trial? Do you think it will work?

Ms Wilson : As a trial or as in the outcome?

CHAIR: As a trial. Do you think there can be a successful trial?

Ms Wilson : It is a very difficult trial to set up properly. I am sure that the committee is very interested in the fact that it is set up extremely robustly and independently. I think it is possible, but there are a lot of difficulties which have been commented upon and a lot of interest is at play.

Senator MADIGAN: Earlier on in your presentation you mentioned when you can get access to data. Can you elaborate a bit more on that.

Ms Wilson : Sure. Not all government campaign results are shared with wide groups of people. I previously sat on the Responsible Gambling Ministerial Advisory Council and in part of my work for that council I was privy to the evaluations of advertising campaigns. The departments in Victoria do not have to routinely give you access to the results of those campaigns as a member of the public or even as a body working in the area.

Senator MADIGAN: Further to that, it is paid for with public funds, so what is the secret? Is this possibly some form of censorship?

Ms Wilson : I am not sure. You would have to ask the Department of Justice that question. We get access to all kinds of data; we are very good at finding data from wide sources. But that is a government process requirement and so you would probably need to ask them.

CHAIR: Thank you again. We met here about a year ago when you gave evidence to our first inquiry, so you have been very generous with your time and your contribution is very much valued. Thank you very much and good luck with your work.

Pr oceedings suspended from 12:21 to 13:34