Gambling, Health, and the Federation

This paper was produced as part of St Vincent de Paul’s internship program.  For more information, contact Rik at policy@svdp.org.au

Problem gambling is a serious public health issue that has plagued Australian society over the past few decades. The harm related to addictive gambling not only negatively influences an individual’s own mental health, but it also detrimentally affects those around the gambler, and the community at large. Contrary to conventional wisdom, problem gambling is not solely caused by the inability of individuals to control their own behaviour. Instead, gambling behaviour – as understood through the Social Determinants of Health framework – is often determined by structural determinants such as culture, education and income levels, which are, in turn, influenced by socio-economic forces like policies and legislation.

In the context of problem gambling, gaming regulations are probably the most pertinent socio-economic forces which influence gambling behaviour. Unfortunately, Australia has experienced a chequered history when it comes to regulating gaming and, in particular, the usage of poker machines. Each state/territory has taken a slightly different approach, all with mixed success. However, in its 2010 report, the Productivity Commission did propose recommendations which not only draw on the previous experiences of the states/territories, but also take the holistic approach to problem gambling as demanded by the Social Determinants of Health model. The Commission’s approach has commonly been recognised as ‘best practice’ in this area.

Nevertheless, ‘best practice’ is only truly ‘the best’ if it can be implemented to aid those who need it. As problem gambling is a national issue, the responsibility for this implementation must fall on the Federal government. Not only does the Commonwealth have the capability to carry out this responsibility, it is also the best placed to direct research on problem gambling and design effective policies which benefit problem gamblers without having to consider other vested financial interests. Thus, it is crucial that the Federal government takes up the responsibility of designing nationally-consistent policies to counter the harms caused by problem gambling, and the upcoming reform of federation consultations seems to be a perfect platform upon which the discussion of this ‘national approach’ could begin.