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Public health approach needed to tackle problem gambling

05:00pm April 28 2023

Australia's online gambling industry has grown rapidly in recent years. (Getty)

The Federal Government’s move to make it illegal for betting companies to allow their customers to use credit cards when gambling online is an important victory, say advocates, but more still needs to be done to protect people impacted by gambling harm.

Legislation enforcing the ban will be introduced to parliament this year, bringing online betting into line with restrictions already in place in physical gambling sites, such as casinos, pubs, clubs, or TAB outlets.

“People shouldn’t fund gambling with debt, because the chances are they’re going to lose,” says Lauren Levin, director of policy and campaigns at not-for-profit group Financial Counselling Australia. “Credit cards are one very important piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the end of our work.” 

Around 20 per cent of deposits into wagering accounts come from credit cards, the lobby group Responsible Wagering Australia said in a submission to a 2021 government inquiry, while online gambling industry turnover in the Northern Territory, where RWA’s members are all licensed, hit $50 billion in 2021-22.

Support from the financial services industry has been crucial in moving the legislation forward, Levin notes, highlighting the strong leadership provided by the Australian Banking Association.

A 2019 conference in Hobart proved an important milestone. Levin invited Anna Bligh, ABA CEO and representatives from all the big four banks, including Westpac’s Customer Advocate, Adrian Ahern, to be on a panel discussing how banks could help their customers impacted by gambling.

At the session, Anna Bligh announced that banks would undertake a consultation process to gauge community sentiment on the issue. 

“That was the turning point,” Levin says.

As part of its consultation process, the ABA commissioned the 2019 YouGov survey that showed Australians broadly support restrictions on the use of credit cards for gambling, with over 80 per cent of respondents saying the practice should be banned, or daily spending caps enforced.

“It’s taken plenty of nudging to keep the issue alive,” says Levin. “Financial counsellors kept on sending me case studies which were a potent reminder of how damaging credit card betting is to individuals and their families. So, we couldn’t stop.”

It’s taken a number of years since then to get to the point where this legislation is being introduced to Parliament, she adds

“Westpac welcomes this move from government, it’s something we’ve been advocating for,” says Siobhan Toohill, Westpac’s chief sustainability officer, adding that it will offer greater protection to customers who gamble and their families.

“The bank already has safeguards in place, including working with our customers to put gambling blocks on accounts where necessary,” Toohill adds. 

The government’s move is in line with international efforts to regulate the online gambling industry. 

In 2020, the UK Gambling Commission introduced a ban on credit cards as a payment method for gambling products. The ban applies to all forms of Internet gambling and to land-based betting. Sweden also has a ban on gambling with credit. In Norway, bank loans or other credit given to people for gambling are not enforceable debts.

However, Australia consistently comes at the top of the global charts in terms of per capita spending on gambling. Giant poker machine halls are a feature of clubs across the country, and sports betting has become synonymous with sport.

“We hear the line that gambling is part of the fabric of our society, that it’s just Australian to gamble,” says Levin, but she adds that many countries have even longer gambling traditions and it hasn’t stopped them acting with really strong legislation to prevent gambling harm. 

“We’re one of the countries that hasn’t come to grips with the extent of our problem,“ she says, adding that we need a new approach that reframes the debate around gambling. 

“Gambling harms a lot of people and we need regulation and guardrails to prevent people from being harmed. We need to move away from gambling as ordinary entertainment. Our governments must categorise gambling as a public health issue,” she says, adding that it requires coordinated action across government which treats the issue in a similar way to tobacco.  

Levin says the Government’s move to ban the use of credit cards is an important step, but there’s more to do.

“It’s a win, and I say thank you to everyone who helped to make this happen. But we can’t stop here.”

James Thornhill was appointed as editor of Westpac Wire in May 2022. Prior to joining the bank, he was a business and financial journalist with more than two decades of experience with international newswires. Most recently, he was a resources correspondent for Bloomberg, covering the mining and energy sectors, and previously reported on a broad range of topics from economics and politics to currency and bond markets. Originally from the UK, he’s had stints working in London, New York and Singapore, but is now happily settled in Sydney.

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