Gambling venues are in lockdown in line with COVID-19 distancing measures, offering people with problem gambling a chance to break and seek help. The University of Sydney Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic is still open and clinicians are seeing clients using videoconferencing. However intake from new clients is declining and calls to the national gambling telephone helpline are down 50%.
To find out if this is good news for people with problem gambling behaviours or a warning sign for a spike in gambling related problems to come, we have launched a national survey on betting behaviour during and following COVID-19 venue shut-downs. The online survey is open to anyone who has placed a bet or gambled in the past, and will track activity in the coming months.
As financial hardship is strongly related to gambling problems, a key concern is whether financial stress, isolation, lack of recreational, work and social activities combined with recent financial stimulus payments may be creating the perfect storm for people vulnerable to problematic and risky behaviours to develop gambling problems which will have impacts well after the shutdowns are lifted.
Associate Professor Sally Gainsbury said the shutdowns will be a relief for some people, and a drop in calls to helplines may reflect a reduced demand for help, suggesting that the shutdown could be having a positive impact on problems. However, it may also be attributed to individuals in need who do not have the privacy to seek help from their own home.
“The reduced demand for treatment may indicate that people are hoping that their gambling problems have now been managed. Unfortunately, once venues re-open, without active efforts to address the drivers of problem gambling, many may resume gambling at problematic levels.
As such, this is a critical time to encourage at-risk individuals to engage with treatment interventions and develop new patterns of thoughts and behaviours, which will enable them to sustain their positive gains in the future.
“Australians are socially isolated; many are in financial hardship and there are high levels of distress. For those vulnerable to addiction this is potentially a situation of very high risk for shifting to or increasing their online gambling. For others, the shutdown may bring relief and provide a rare opportunity to escape the constant accessibility of gambling with all pokies (electronic gaming machines) shut and most sports cancelled. However, it is unknown whether any gains made in combatting gambling addiction will last when venues reopen and what the gambling environment will look like when restrictions are lifted.
“COVID-19 will test whether we are really a nation of gamblers. We are launching this study at a critical time in order to understand and help inform gambling treatments.”
Gambling disorder is defined based partially on a loss of control over one’s gambling including repeated attempts to cutback and quit gambling but an inability to do so despite severe negative consequences across a range of important areas. The need for external assistance to reduce gambling for some people is the basis of mandated self-exclusion programs, which block those who enrol from gambling, and are demonstrated to be effective in reducing gambling harms. A forced break in gambling may help people recognise their problems and have some time and space to deal with these.
In times of economic recession, gambling, particularly on lotteries, usually stays strong. Gambling during recession times is typically highest amongst those who are experiencing the greatest financial hardship as it represents a potential way out. However, ongoing gambling during financial crisis is often driven by erroneous beliefs given the low chances of winning and the financial losses almost always assured.
In 2008-2009 the Australian Federal Government introduced a series of economic stimulus packages designed to maintain consumer spending, often colloquially referred to as the “Pokies and Plasma payouts”. The first package targeted mainly low-income households and pensioners led to a 10% increase in pokies spend, the second wider package led to a 16% increase in addition to evidence of increased lottery sales.
There is some evidence that Australians are similarly now turning to gambling during the shutdown. A database tracking Australian consumption patterns found spending on online gambling was 71% higher than normal in April. Men reportedly spent more on gambling than women following a stimulus payout, although most stimulus recipients did not spend the payment on gambling. A UK poll reported that 28% of those who bet at least once a week had increased their gambling.
In response to concerns, gambling industry groups in the UK have removed TV and radio advertising during the lockdown and committed to ‘safer gambling’ measures. Other international jurisdictions have implemented maximum spend limits for all state-based gambling operators. However, this may have the unintended consequence of driving consumers to use offshore gambling sites. Offshore gambling sites are those who do not hold a domestic gambling license, in Australia, all casino, pokies, bingo and poker sites are prohibited. It is difficult to track use of offshore sites, but gambling on these is associated with higher rates of gambling problems.
Increases in online gambling, wagering app downloads, and online lottery sales may reflect shifts from previous gambling or discretionary expenditure spend. Research is needed is to investigate what is happening in high risk groups, particularly those with disorders of the brain and mind. As we adapt treatments to changing social conditions it is essential to understand how gambling patterns will change when venues reopen but financial hardship and psychological distress remain.
To answer some of these questions and help inform treatments and policy reforms on behalf of those experiencing harm or who need help, we are seeking to recruit as many Australians as possible who have gambled or bet at least once in the past 12 months. The research consists of a brief online survey and we will follow-up up every three months to track the ongoing changes in levels of gambling over time.
Please contact with any questions. The more people who complete the survey, the more representative our results will be.