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Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform
19/08/2011
Interactive and online gambling and gambling advertising

BRISTOW, Mr Ralph William, Committee Member, Gambling Impact Society (NSW) Inc

ROBERTS, Ms Kate, Chairperson, Gambling Impact Society (NSW) Inc

Evidence was taken via teleconference

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Gambling Impact Society of New South Wales, via teleconference. I invite you to make a brief opening statement before the committee proceeds to questions.

Ms Roberts : I am sorry that we could not be there in person today. I guess there is not much that we can add than what we started with with our petition—

CHAIR: Excuse me, Ms Roberts, it is hard to hear you.

Ms Roberts : Okay. Is that better?

CHAIR: I think so.

Ms Roberts : If there is a problem we will go to two handsets; at the moment we are on speaker phone.\

CHAIR: Okay.

Ms Roberts : From our perception there is likely to be continued and expanded growth in the interactive market for gambling. I guess our concerns mainly around that have been perhaps the weaknesses in regulation of that market currently. We are aware that we have had some major inquiries looking into problem gambling in Australia in 1999 and 2010. In that last inquiry there was a clear recommendation to a adopt a public health and consumer protection approach to problem gambling. We would like to see that extended to include interactive online gambling—and one that is particularly attractive to the younger generation. We are aware that young men particularly—

CHAIR: Can I just interrupt here? I am sorry about this, Ms Roberts. You cannot hear that, Nick?

Ms Roberts : I will take it off speakerphone. Is that better?

CHAIR: That is much better.

Ms Roberts : The point I was making is that our main concerns are around the potential expansion and growth in the field of interactive and online gambling. We are aware, from the experience in other jurisdictions, particularly Europe, that this is a very attractive market. We believe the recommendations of the Productivity Commission to take a public health and consumer protection approach need to be extended into this area of gambling. This is particularly so given that we know that it is attractive to young people whom we know are particularly at risk of problem gambling. We believe that currently the regulations are not strong enough to provide the kind of protection that people need and we would like to see the regulations strengthened.

Federal MP Alan Tudge has drawn a particular illustration of this, which the committee may already be aware of, to my attention. A constituent of his was provided with $80,000 worth of credit by Sportsbet and was at risk of losing his house over the issue. This is someone who had already been diagnosed with a mental illness. He was made bankrupt by SportsBet and I believe that, without intervention, he would have lost his house. Mr Tudge has raised that issue with me and I think it is a good illustration of how credit betting raises particular risks for people. It is banned from other forms of gambling and we believe there is every reason to think that it should be banned from any kind of online or interactive gambling.

Again, there are obviously particular risks with minors as far as interactive online gambling is concerned—the matter of being able to provide positive ID and the general access issues. There is a lack of consistency, I think, with what we already have commenced in terms of harm reduction in other policy areas of gambling—it seems particularly weak around this area of gambling.

One of my own particular concerns is that advertising for betting arrives on your screen nightly with messages that include, as I have discovered, an actual trade name for a betting company out of the Northern Territory called BET24/7, I believe. I think that is a very clear message coming up on our screens every night, yet here in New South Wales we supposedly have a culture of promoting responsible gambling. Just that message alone seems to be quite contrary to the sentiments spelled out in that policy. I think that is a good illustration of the kinds of double standards we have.

I am sure that other areas of the gambling industry feel overregulated at the moment, yet we would say that we are looking at harm reduction and I am really concerned that this area of gambling has not, perhaps, come into that framework. I would like to see the committee make recommendations to include it.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Roberts. Mr Bristow, do you have anything to add?

Mr Bristow : No, not at this stage.

CHAIR: Thank you. I will now open up to questions. Who would like to kick off?

Senator XENOPHON: I am happy to. Thank you for your submission. Are you seeing any emerging trends through the Gambling Impact Society of people having problems with online gambling or are you primarily still concerned with poker machine gambling problems?

Ms Roberts : Our organisation is primarily around community education and information as opposed to direct treatment service delivery. We do not actually get people coming forward to us with their own particular individual problem. What we do have is consumers who have often been through recovery or who feel that they want to come and get involved. At the moment the contacts that we have had have been primarily from people who have been harmed by poker machine gambling. I guess that is what I see as perhaps the tip of the iceberg. I am aware through my collegial networks with other problem gambling counsellors—which of course is one of my other hats—that there are more presentations coming through the counselling service from younger people with sports betting particularly. That is something that has certainly been raised, as I am aware, by the University of Sydney problem gambling counselling service recently and generally through some of the problem gambling counsellors who I am in contact with. So I think it is an opportune time that we have here to start to seriously look at this issue in the hope that we will be able to stem that flow.

Senator XENOPHON: Further to that, you have done a lot of work in terms of online gambling and in terms of your own research. What do you see about features of online gambling compared to, say, poker machines? Given your expertise and your research and your academic work, what do you think could be problematic in the context of online gambling? Do you see people shifting from one form of gambling to another or do you see a new group of people, different groups, being vulnerable to online gambling that are not necessarily that vulnerable to poker machines?

Ms Roberts : I would have to qualify that I really do not consider myself an expert in online gambling. It is not an area that I have spent a lot of time studying, I must admit. I have done more work in the field of poker machines. It is only through my academic work. I have certainly attended conferences in Europe, where there have been major expansions of internet gambling, and most of the problem gambling services there are seeing people with internet betting and other forms of interactive gambling issues.

It is not in my clinical experience that many people move from, for instance, land based poker machine type gambling to internet gambling. I do believe that they are probably a separate group again. The concern from my perception would be the accessibility of it—the fact that you do not have to go very far out of your chair in your living room to actually make contact with a gambling site. That in itself suggests that there are particular groups who may be more accessible than others. Young people, in particular, I think would find opportunities to be able to access that more clearly than, for instance, having to go into a licensed bar or a licensed club to gamble. We know through other media et cetera that that has certainly been the case for underage gambling.

Also I think women are particularly another vulnerable group. For instance, my basic research through the UK has indicated that there are particular sites that I would say are targeting women in particular. Online bingo seems to be particularly popular in the UK and I suspect it has a major female following. So I think it is a new animal, to some extent—one that we have not really totally explored here in Australia. By that very nature we have the opportunity to start seriously looking at it.

Senator XENOPHON: Ms Roberts, I have one more question. This inquiry is also looking at the issue of sports betting and the promotion of sports betting. A story that has stuck in my mind is this: a very good friend of mine tells me that at a recent footy match, an AFL game, his seven-year-old was actually talking about the odds, not the player statistics of his sporting heroes. How do you see that impacting on children and also the potential that may have for problematic behaviour down the track when those kids become adults?

Ms Roberts : I think there is no doubt—and I am sure Ralph will have something to add to this in a moment—that that kind of exposure I would consider as a parent to be quite inappropriate. It is certainly something that my colleagues think about. I work in health in another capacity and certainly my other health colleagues, because they know of my involvement in the gambling field, have regularly raised that with me when they have taken their children to football matches. That level of exposure is certainly of concern to them as parents. It is the same issue that we have looked at with poker machines that you could have on your Game Boy toys. So it is the same issue. We are exposing young people at an early age and ultimately that falls into almost a form of grooming so that they are more likely to perhaps engage in that activity later on. I think it is totally inappropriate. People are there to participate in a recreational activity. Why are they being bombarded with messages about gambling and the odds? It is effectively being inclined to encourage people to get on their mobile phones and start betting. After all, they are there to enjoy a game, and so I think it is really something that we need to look seriously at. I will ask Ralph if he wants to add anything to that.

Mr Bristow : Yes. Having been a problem gambler myself—and I have been in recovery for nine years—I know my first introduction to gambling was when I was eight years old. That was gambling on greyhounds. I heard what you have just mentioned about a seven-year-old young fellow. That gives an indication. My personal experience tells me that it is a big risk. It is a big problem down the line.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

Senator CROSSIN: Good afternoon, Ms Roberts and Mr Bristow. My base is in Darwin. Your submission argues that the use of credit cards to gamble online is high. Is there any evidence of that? Have you got any research? Or is that a perception that you have?

Ms Roberts : Certainly it is a perception that I have, and it is certainly something that people raise with me, being consumers and other members of the public. I do not have hard data. I have not gone out specifically to research that area. Basically, that is the major concern that people—and gamblers themselves—have been raising with me, how easy it is to be able to use credit for betting compared to other areas of gambling.

Senator CROSSIN: What is your analysis of gambling online versus gambling in clubs? Is there evidence that perhaps gambling online is less harmful than gambling in clubs or is it vice versa from your discussion or your evidence?

Ms Roberts : There are particular issues with continuous forms of gambling which, by the nature of things like poker machines, we know people are specifically held by. As I say, I have not spent a lot of time studying the field of online gambling at the inter-psychic level but I am aware that people can become addicted to other forms of interaction through internet games, for instance. We have had illustrations of that recently in Japan, where people have actually been hooked on specific internet games. So I have no doubt that once exposure, and the continuing exposure, is increased we will be seeing more and more people falling into problematic behaviours with this medium.

Certainly in terms of mobile phone betting and sports betting and the availability of running accounts through telephone betting et cetera, I have had clients who have fallen into considerable difficulties with that. While at the moment we have had poker machines as being major cause of harm in Australia, this will be a growth market, particularly as we increase our regulations around poker machines. I think the industry will be expanding its opportunities and we will be looking at another growth in problem gambling but with a different medium.

CHAIR: I want to get a sense of the general response to this question. When you think of the future and online gambling, are you generally in favour of prohibition or of liberalisation safeguards?

Ms Roberts : That is really tricky question.

CHAIR: Yes, but it does shine a light onto your angle, if I could put it that way.

Ms Roberts : I do not think that extending exposure is a good idea. I still have my own challenges with this because I realise that you can get licences in Australia for sports betting which operate through online mediums, and there is a whole different regulation obviously going on around gaming opportunities on the internet, which, as I understand it, are currently banned. So you cannot get a licence to provide casino table type games and interactive games of that nature or poker machine electronic EGM games online. However, we are of course saturated by an offshore market. I think the challenge with that is that we have to go the whole hog and actually ban that and block those sites coming in, which I believe has been done in New Zealand. I am not sure how effective it is but that is certainly their practice. I am not sure that I agree with the argument that we should be expanding our own licensing. I think the opportunities that people have to come in has to be somehow better regulated. We do not have a hold on that market offshore.

CHAIR: There are two quite different issues here. One is the situation with what is allowed currently with online gambling. Is that regulated appropriately and, if not, what changes are needed? Then, quite separately, there is the issue of online gaming. As you have described, it is not allowed for Australian firms to set up in Australia offering services but there are arguably thousands of offshore sites accessed by Australian citizens, and that raises the question of whether the current prohibition is working.

Ms Roberts : It is obviously not.

CHAIR: Yes, I think it is probably self-evident that it is not, so do we try to tighten up? Or do we say, 'It is almost an unwinnable situation so let's just make the environment as safe as possible'?

Ms Roberts : Yes. That is where we have these double-standards running. We say we will not allow our own supply but at the same time the supply that is coming in is totally unregulated, so we have not actually stopped the supply from overseas, which is where New Zealand has taken that further. I would be in favour of strengthening those prohibitions, but if we are not going to do that we certainly need to put in much better harm reduction and consumer protections than we currently have.

CHAIR: We have certainly heard from a number of witnesses who have expressed concern with the difficulty of preventing access to those sites—that it is probably impossible.

Ms Roberts : Yes.

CHAIR: Turning to the first of those two issues, though, the current situation, do you believe there need to be greater safeguards with what is allowed currently?

Ms Roberts : Absolutely, yes. I am not familiar enough with the individual sites and the individual markets to be able to dissect and tell you exactly where the gaps are, but the obvious ones we have talked about are in terms of credit betting, the promotions and the double standards that we have around that. How can we not allow advertising, for instance, for EGM gambling on the sides of hotels and yet we are able to have that level of advertising across sports games and televisions. There just seems to be a real double standard there. I think if we are saying that we really need to look at gambling from a public health perception, just as we have had to look at drugs and alcohol and tobacco, we should be looking at some consistency across the board there and I do not think we have them.

CHAIR: Do you have a view on precommitment with that form of gambling?

Ms Roberts : As you aware from our other submissions—certainly for me personally and the position of the Gambling Impact Society—we would be in support of precommitment across the board for that, because I think once again it is the opportunity for giving consumers the ability to stay in control and to have their personal limits honoured. I think that is a really significant tool for people and it is also a good tool for helping people reflect on their gambling behaviour. I am actually working on a case at the moment, which I cannot speak too much about, which deals with player tracking information. Sitting down and actually looking at the level of information there and what insights you can get around someone's behaviour is really quite informing. People being able to have those personal records would be a great tool for them to be able to keep a full eye on their gambling behaviour. Certainly the ability for people to be able to precommit and have those limits honoured would be a significant strengthening and support for consumer protection.

CHAIR: My understanding is in fact that I think most of the Australian sites, if not all, do already have forms of precommitment. They would certainly have accumulated an enormous amount of information on the gambling habits of all of their clients because everything would be recorded, presumably.

Ms Roberts : Yes, and I know that there are opportunities for people to self-exclude. I am not familiar with all the sites, but for instance I would want to see something similar to what was developed in the UK—the gamAid program whereby there is an immediate button for people to be able to click to get both supportive information and opportunities to get direct help in terms of counselling et cetera. Because we have set up some very good systems within Australia for 24-hour online counselling type support as well as self-help support, I think those are the sorts of things that will also strengthen the harm minimisation and harm reduction.

CHAIR: Ms Roberts, you refer to cases you are working on—and of course we would not want you breach any confidences, but are you able to give us a bit of a sense of the human face of this? So far we have heard from service providers and all sorts of other people but I personally—and I think I can speak for some of my colleagues—probably do not have a good sense of the human face of it, the human toll, specifically of online gambling. Are you able to talk in general terms about some of what you have seen?

Ms Roberts : I have not been really working as a problem gambling counsellor regularly for a while now. It is more in my private practice. and most of the clinical presentations when I was with Nowra Community Health were specifically with people with poker machine gambling, but that does not mean it does not exist. I think one of the difficulties is that the whole issue with problem gambling is that people obviously do not identify that the program reach from counselling is about 15 per cent, as was found by the Productivity Commission. So we do not get people lining up for counselling and I think generally having that for interactive and online gambling is even further down that track. I am saying that I have not had many personal experiences in a counselling setting with this group of clients, but I am aware that the counsellors right now are seeing many more people, proportionately, than they would have been, say, in the last five or six years, which is when I was seeing people regularly through a community health centre. That is my understanding, and that is through professional development. I am also an RGF counsellor supervisor and, through our networks, that is the kind of discussion that has been going on.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms Roberts and Mr Bristow. Is there anything more either of you would like to add.

Mr Bristow : Just briefly.

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Bristow : In my experiences as a gambler, I have tried most forms. I have not tried online gambling but, going back into the past, I was very familiar with the days of SP bookmaking and also illegal casinos. My personal feeling is that, whatever the form of gambling, there is always going to be problem gamblers. So I feel that prohibition would not work. I feel that regulation is the way to go.

CHAIR: On some of the forms of gambling that are currently prohibited in Australia but are available from overseas websites, do you have a view on whether they should be formalised, made legal and carefully regulated?

Mr Bristow : That I am not 100 per cent sure on. What I am saying is that, if they were legalised—say they were Australian based or from overseas—I feel that there would have to be tight regulations.

Mr Bristow : It is harm reduction I am looking at.

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Bristow : Gambling is like alcohol or drugs. There are going to be people who get out of control and for whom it is an addiction. I know hundreds and hundreds of gamblers from the past. I have seen that they have ended up as suicides, had family breakdowns and broken relationships. One problem gambler can affect anywhere from 10 to 15 people directly. It is not only to themselves personally the harm they do; it is harm to the community as a whole.

CHAIR: Did you say that you know 10 or 15?

Mr Bristow : No, what I am saying is my understanding from statistics are that one problem gambler has an effect, like a ripple effect, on 10 to 15 other people at least.

CHAIR: Yes, I understand.

Ms Roberts : I would just like to add a couple of things about. I think we still have not got a clear grasp on this in terms of its impacts on the community at the moment because of the lack of perhaps presentations. And with that, also, I would say that as a counselling service we do not really reach very far into the young people. That is where I suspect that there will certainly be a lot more evidence of problem gambling in the coming years. This medium in particular is attractive to them. What I am aware of already in terms of personal impacts on individuals who get hooked onto online sites is the number of hours that people are actually spending involved in an interactive mode. You lose time communicating with family, you lose sleep and you are really not accessible to those other interactions and therefore there are ongoing impacts from that. I know that I have raised in other submissions the gaps that I see generally in communication and mass media around information about gambling per se, but the little bit that we have had has been certainly targeted to the area of significant harm, which is obviously poker machine gambling. There are obviously still areas for development within that, but there is very little around that has actually touched on sports betting or online gambling and the potential harms of that. I would certainly like to think that if we were starting to include this under a public health umbrella we would look at how we can improve levels of public awareness and community education around the potential harms of these forms of gambling as well.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Roberts, for that additional contribution. Thanks again to the Gambling Impact Society of NSW. Both in our previous inquiry and in this one you have been very helpful and you also bring a very important perspective to our inquiry. I suspect we will talk again.