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Sports betting in Australia has been growing rapidly in recent years – all that advertising seems to be paying off. AAP/Julian Smith

Gambling gallops on, stats reveal – but what can be done to curb its harms?

Data released late last week reveal Australia’s gambling habit is growing as fast as ever. The Australian Gambling Statistics for 2014-15 show adult Australians, on average, lost A$1,242 a year on gambling.

The amount varies dramatically by state: in New South Wales the average loss was $1,518; in Tasmania, $762.

Most gambling expenditure goes on the pokies. Out of a total of $22.7 billion in 2014-15, $11.6 billion (51%) was lost on poker machines in pubs and clubs.

This also varies by state. In NSW, $5.7 billion was spent on such pokies. In Victoria, it was $2.6 billion. In Western Australia, nothing.

Casino gambling (which includes poker machines in casinos) grew by more than 16% in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation) to $5.2 billion. The biggest chunk of that ($1.9 billion) was in Victoria. NSW placed second, with $1.4 billion in casino losses.

Surprisingly, growth rates in many gambling products have been strong. Sports betting has been growing rapidly in recent years – up to 17% per year to June 2014.

This growth was initially fuelled by a High Court decision in 2008 that allowed interstate bookies to operate in states where they didn’t hold a licence. It got a second kick from a series of takeovers by big overseas bookies. However, the latest figures show recent growth has eclipsed even the very strong growth rates of earlier years, with real growth of 28.2% to June 2015.

All that advertising seems to be paying off. Australians lost $814.6 million on sports betting last year.

The pokies are still the biggest game in town, however, and by a fair margin. Of the $1,518 lost per head in NSW, $978 (64.8%) went into pokies in pubs or clubs. This is unsurprising, given NSW has around 95,000 poker machines; 70% in clubs. The rest of Australia (bar WA) has to make do with the remaining 100,000.

Is this growth a problem?

Pokies are far and away the biggest cause of gambling harm. Around 75% or more of those directly experiencing harm from gambling do so because of poker machines. And most people don’t use them.

A recent study found only about 16% of adult Victorians use pokies. What that means is the per-capita expenditure of actual users is not an average of $559 per year, but about $3,493. Among that group, a smaller proportion use pokies regularly, and that group sustains losses many times greater than the average.

Gambling harm is becoming more concentrated. A body of evidence now indicates it is concentrated in highly stressed communities, where disadvantage and poverty are turbo-charged by gambling losses.

The growth in sports betting is, to put it mildly, phenomenal. Most worryingly, a body of research is beginning to demonstrate that children are highly exposed to gambling ads. This is because voluntary broadcast advertising rules allow gambling ads during G-rated programming – if it is a sports broadcast.

This loophole defies explanation, other than to acknowledge that gambling ads are now a lucrative source of revenue for broadcasters. Sporting codes get a share via broadcast rights payments, pumped up by the advertising budget of bookies with deep pockets and a desire to grow their market.

What can be done?

The new parliament offers an opportunity to rein in some of these excesses.

The lowest-hanging fruit is the unrestricted advertising that exposes kids to a regular dose of gambling normalisation. The federal government has complete control of this; it could end it whenever it wants. The consumer protection measures promised before the election are a good start, but advertising is the elephant in the room that needs to be tackled.

And the pokies? Substantial political donations and careful support of selected major party politicians have worked wonders for the pokie lobby since 2010, when the Gillard-Wilkie agreement threatened their rivers of gold. But the concerns of crossbench MPs like Nick Xenophon and Andrew Wilkie are unabated.

Again, the federal government has clear power to act. Xenophon and Wilkie have made it clear they expect gambling reform to be front and centre in the new parliament.

These latest figures throw fuel on the fire of their concern. Gambling harm is a major source of harm to the health and well-being of the community. It’s right up there with major depression, for example. State taxes are one thing; wholesale attacks on the health and well-being of the community are another thing entirely.

Whatever the new parliament holds, gambling reform seems certain to be part of the mix.

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