Gambling in Suburban Australia
This study explores how the characteristics of local neighbourhoods and gambling activity interrelate. Its particular focus is on electronic gambling machines (EGMs, or 'pokies') and the venues that host them.
The report presents a novel mixed-methods study of a social phenomenon that has not yet been well explored: the relationships between place, social circumstances, gambling and harm. It compares two socially distinct areas of a major city (Melbourne, Victoria) to identify a range of issues that warrant further exploration for policy purposes. It considers:
1. how socio-environmental factors may influence local gambling consumption
2. how the characteristics of local communities may interact with local gambling opportunities to influence gambling consumption
3. the localised effects of gambling on people who gamble and their 'significant others'.
The study found that high-intensity EGM gambling was easily accessible, especially in the site of higher disadvantage. It found that while gambling consumption is affected by a range of factors, the availability and nature of high-intensity EGM gambling influenced gambling uptake and participation by those who participated in this research, and contributed to a range of health, financial, relationship and emotional harms. These findings have led the authors to propose a range of harm-prevention and reduction measures that may improve public health and protect consumers from gambling-related harms (see section 10.4).
Like other research, our study found that high EGM availability or saturation coincided with social stress and disadvantage. This poses a risk of higher and more severe levels of gambling‑related harm.
Community members and families are attracted to gambling venues by a range of heavily promoted, loss-leading, non-gambling activities and facilities including free or subsidised meals and drinks. The use of these promotions may lead to outcomes that are contrary to venues' Responsible Gambling Codes of Conducts.
Even in the less disadvantaged site, with relatively fewer opportunities to gamble, the nature of high-intensity gambling products in local venues may lead people who gamble there, and their significant others, to experience harm from gambling.
Local residents in both sites reported modest benefits and significant harms from the presence of gambling venues in their neighbourhoods. Analysis of clubs' community benefit statements found that benefits claimed by operators can be overstated.
Policies aimed at reducing harm from EGMs should consider the distribution and availability of EGMs in local communities, and the introduction of harm-reduction measures such as universal pre-commitment systems and the restriction of indirect venue promotions.
Australia is unique in the world for the widespread availability of electronic gambling machines (EGMs, or 'pokies') in local community hotels and clubs. In most other countries, high-intensity forms of gambling are largely confined to casinos, meaning people who gamble must make a deliberate effort to visit these venues.
While gambling consumption is affected by a range of factors, including those at the individual level (such as life experiences and stressors), place and social context also play a substantial role in determining the use of available gambling opportunities.
This report will explore the role of social and environmental factors in influencing EGM use in local hotels and clubs. It will show how availability (and, in some cases, saturation) of gambling venues influences EGM use, and how, in disadvantaged areas, the problem is compounded by a lack of alternative social spaces. It will also show how gambling-related harm can be significantly magnified and intensified in areas already experiencing socio-economic stress, when compared with less disadvantaged areas.
The report presents findings of an exploratory place-based study of two geographical areas, each comprising a six-suburb cluster. The study investigates a social phenomenon that has not yet been well explored; that is, the relationship between place, social circumstances, gambling and harm. Site 1 is an area of higher socio-economic disadvantage and EGM density in Melbourne's west; and Site 2 is an area of average socio-economic status and EGM density in Melbourne's east. The method involved: analysis of secondary regulatory and census data to compile a socio-demographic and EGM profile of each site; neighbourhood and EGM venue (n = 11) observations; and interviews and/or focus groups with people who gamble (n = 44), their significant others (n = 20), the general resident population (n = 65) and professionals (n = 30), comprising a total of 159 participants across both sites. The final stage of analysis involved the triangulation of methods to test the validity of findings between the study methods.
The study found a higher level of geographic and social gambling availability in Site 1 compared to Site 2, as measured through the density of machines and as reported by participants. It also found that the harms from gambling were more pronounced and prevalent in Site 1.
Participants across both study areas reported substantial financial, health, relationship and emotional harms from frequent gambling. However, in Site 1, these harms were magnified by existing disadvantage.
Participants in Site 1 reported that the problem of a high level of gambling venue availability was compounded by a lack of alternative social spaces. Many participants reported that they inadvertently ended up at gambling venues when they were undertaking routine daily activities, such as attending their children's sporting events. This contrasted with evidence from Site 2, where the reported relative abundance of alternative social spaces and activities were combined with fewer EGM venues (see section 3.3).
It is apparent both through researcher observations and reports from people who gambled and venue professionals (in both sites) that EGM operators seek to increase the crossover between the use of non-gambling facilities in venues, such as sporting facilities, the bistro and bar, and the EGM area (see section 4.1). Participants frequently reported using EGMs in venues that they had initially attended for other purposes such as dining or socialising. Participants noted that offers such as free coffee and tea provided in the EGM area may also encourage the use of EGMs.
These offers of free or heavily discounted food, beverages and activities were also seen as impacting other non-gambling businesses who may subsequently experience lower demand for their goods and services (see section 3.4 and section 6.2). Most participants were also sceptical about purported benefits provided by EGM operators to the local community, and the data presented (see chapter 9) support previous recommendations that subsidising local clubs that derive considerable income through operation of EGMs may not be the most efficient way to fund community activities.
Previous research has shown a relationship between people who gamble problematically and social isolation. Trevorrow and Moore (1998) found an association between loneliness, social isolation and women's use of electronic gambling machines. Data from our study (see section 5.4) indicate that social isolation is a risk factor for use of EGMs, and also a result of gambling harm. Some participants who already experienced isolation and loneliness reported they began gambling as a way to address that situation. Others reported that, as a consequence of their harmful gambling behaviour, they were dislocated from their families and social networks.
These experiences were magnified and intensified in areas already experiencing considerable social stress and disadvantage. Participants cited the apparently 'non-threatening' environment of the EGM venue, in which lone attendance is common and where staff seem friendly and welcoming (see section 5.4).
It is possible, since participants self-selected to take part in this study, that they may be more likely to have experienced gambling harms than others in the community. However, we found that, even if our participants' gambling harms were more pronounced than usual, both the immediate and legacy effects of gambling harms represented substantial opportunity costs, and imposed real and often enduring costs in both our study sites on people who gamble, their families, communities and society (see chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8). This finding may illuminate research conducted by Markham, Young, and Doran (2015) that demonstrated that there is no 'safe' level of EGM use.
The harms described by some participants included family breakdown, family violence and other crimes, mental illness and suicide. All participants who gambled reported financial harms, with some describing going without meals, struggling to make mortgage or rental payments, house repossession and homelessness (section 6.2 and section 6.3). In Site 1, where many participants were already under considerable financial and social stress, it was reported that the severity of harms could escalate to crisis levels very quickly. By comparison, many participants in Site 2 were in a position to draw on their own assets or the wealth of extended family to mitigate the damaging effects gambling had on their finances, relationships, health and careers.
The findings of this report highlight the need for further consideration of EGM licensing and regulation, such as the location and number of community-based EGMs and the manner in which they are provided. This was a perspective expressed by many participants in this study (see section 9.1). New policy settings are also recommended.
In section 10.4, 'Recommendations', we propose a range of options to address some of the harms of EGM use. These include:
- Restrict the distribution and level of EGM availability in local communities.
- Provide less harmful gambling machines by introducing a range of well-documented harm-reduction measures.
- Separate alcohol from ambient gambling.
- Create alternative non-gambling spaces where local residents can meet and socialise.
- Restrict indirect venue promotions, including 'family-friendly' subsidies and activities for families and children.
- Increase resources to police and regulators to ensure EGM venues comply with existing laws and regulations.
- Review tax concessions to 'not-for-profit' clubs that operate EGMs, and reform 'community benefit' schemes.
- Require venues and the financial and banking sector to implement improved customer protections.
- Require venues across Australia to provide detailed data about EGM use at venues.
- Invest in research that can inform policies to support the prevention and reduction of gambling-related harm.
- Develop and implement a National Gambling Strategy to provide coordinated direction and support to the prevention and reduction of gambling harm across Australia.
Authors and Acknowledgements
The authors are grateful to all participants for sharing their experiences and time with us. This study was made possible through the support of a range of organisations including Brimbank, Maribyrnong and Whitehorse City Councils, Health West Partnership, Disability Network Group MRC North-West Region Inc., Visy Cares Hub, Chrysalis Insight Inc., Sunshine Friday Traders Market, IPC Health (formerly known as ISIS Primary Care), Co-Health, Gambler's Help Eastern, EACH, Dr Charles Livingstone at Monash University and Professor Rebecca Cassidy at Goldsmiths University of London.
The authors are grateful to the following colleagues for their support and assistance during the conduct of this study: Rebecca Jenkinson, Stewart Muir, Marissa Dickins, Anna Thomas, Thai Ohtsuka, Thanh Lee, Andrew Armstrong, Jennifer Baxter, Kelly Hand and Anne Hollonds.
Angela Rintoul and Julie Deblaquiere are employed by the Australian Gambling Research Centre (AGRC) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). This study was funded through Commonwealth appropriations provided to the AGRC. The AGRC is funded by consolidated revenue from the Commonwealth Government.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this study. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and may not reflect the views of AIFS or the Australian Government.
The authors endorse the Auckland Code of Ethics for Gambling Research and adhere to the best practice principles described in that document.
Featured image: © GettyImages/mbbirdy
Rintoul, A., & Deblaquiere, J. (2019). Gambling in Suburban Australia. (Research Report). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
This paper has been blind reviewed by an independent and unaffiliated expert in the field
Electronic gambling machines are a high-intensity form of gambling and the most harmful form of gambling available in Australia.
Sets out the AGRC's research directions.
This study examined trends in gambling activity between the two Australian Productivity Commission inquiries.