Gambling is having a deep impact on people’s finances and their mental health. But gambling adverts are a revenue win for businesses and government, and the call to ban online gambling advertising remains unheeded.
Gavin Fineff worked hard. Money was tight growing up, and he had few pleasures. In 2010, at the age of 31, he secured a job as a financial planner and investment manager in the Sydney CBD. His salary would steadily increase to $165,000 plus bonuses. He got married and had two kids. The world was at his feet, as a judge later observed.
By 2014, Gavin had significant savings. Like so many men of his age, he began to have a flutter on the horses. Ladbrokes, Sportsbet, BetEasy, Betfair, Tabcorp. Each asked for Gavin’s money, and he happily obliged.
“The disease got me,” he would later write to his boss. “I lost control and ended up losing it all.”
Just like drugs and alcohol, gambling stimulates the brain’s reward system. The thrill of a win can be addictive, but it diminishes over time. For a repeated gambler, attaining that same level of thrill requires betting with increasing amounts of money. As the losses pile up, the addict ‘chases losses’ by betting more, and losing more.
After Gavin lost his own savings, he turned to his clients. He asked them for personal loans, promising to put their money towards savvy investments. Twelve victims, aged from their 30s to 80s, each gave Gavin between $60,000 and $745,000 – a total of over $3.3 million. He lost almost all of it gambling.
The betting companies were aware of Gavin’s prolific gambling. They encouraged him with VIP status and a personal customer service manager. On one occasion one company gave him a $50,000 credit, which he lost within 40 minutes. The same company credited him another $50,000 the next day. ‘It’s like a drug dealer handing out free heroin to people’, he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2020.
Gavin admits to losing millions of dollars of mostly stolen money. He is banned from his profession, bankrupt, and currently sits in prison until at least February 2028.
The deep shame that he feels will never go away, he says. His family have been lied to and humiliated. His clients have lost life savings. So many have suffered because of his actions.
This is the story of addiction.
How it starts
On average, an individual’s gambling directly affects six people around them, and many others indirectly. ‘Gambling harm encompasses everything from the loss of homes and relationships to the loss of lives through deaths by suicide’, says Tim Costello, Chief Advocate for Alliance for Gambling Reform. The World Health Organization estimates that, of approximately one million suicides each year, five per cent are related to compulsive gambling. In Australia, around 400 people die by suicide every year as a result of gambling.
It all starts with a couple of wins. The wins turn into losses, and then bigger losses, which the addict chases until there is nothing left but shame, worry and depression. For people without proper support, the never-ending lies and increasing isolation can be too much to bear.
It all starts with a couple of wins. The wins turn into losses, and then bigger losses, which the addict chases until there is nothing left but shame, worry and depression.
The data tells the story:
- Australians outspend the citizens of every other country in the world on online gambling.
- Half a million Australians have asked their banks to put temporary or permanent gambling blocks on their bank accounts.
- 7 per cent of Australians placed a bet online in 2019, an increase from 12.6 per cent just nine years earlier.
There are two major culprits for this dramatic increase in our love affair with gambling.
The first – the proliferation of smartphones and online gambling — means that we all have access to the pokies in our bedrooms.
Victorian Ken Wolfe started betting decades earlier with horse, dog and trot racing at the track or TAB. ‘Online gambling was a godsend for me’, he says. Using his phone meant Ken could have a punt without sneaking off to a TAB, enabling more bets and fewer lies. ‘It meant I could justify behaviours that were illogical and wrong as right and legitimate,’ he says. Years later, Ken found himself in prison after accepting bribes to fuel his addiction and pay off his debts, including that of his son, who maintains a deep sense of betrayal.
Impossible to escape
The second and perhaps more insidious cause of the rise in online gambling in Australia is its ubiquitous advertising across all forms of media. Betting companies spend more than $287 million on advertising each year. The ads are slick, funny, creative — and prolific. On TV, on radio, in stadiums and across all forms of social media, online betting companies encourage us to ‘bet with mates’, ‘share the thrill’, and ‘make it look easy’.
Go on, have a dabble, urges one of the newest betting companies. ‘Dabble – the most sociable sports betting app, made just for you.’
The emphasis on social connection is no accident. Gambling is a socially accepted behaviour in Australia – a favourite pastime linked to the Australian idea of mateship. The hugely successful advertisements speak to this cultural idiom. While gamblers place almost all their bets alone in the home, the great majority of gambling ads depict young to middle-aged men sharing pints at the pub and having a ‘flutter’, a ‘punt’ or a ‘dabble’ while watching the game.
This is how it started for Perth’s Jeremy Ryan, now 27 years old, who began with small money when he was 16. Ever since, he says, gambling has ‘plagued my life with misery, financial turmoil [and] emotional distress, and profoundly impacted my mental health and day-to-day life.’ Various government restrictions are in place to limit advertising targeting young people, but Jeremy says that ‘advertising is everywhere … impossible to escape.’ He recently overheard a child no older than 10 singing along to the TAB app’s theme song, ‘You’ve got the touch.’ Even Snapchat, he notes, a social media platform primarily for kids and teenagers, has camera filters for Sportsbet.
The torrent of sports betting advertising is grooming young people for gambling. It is grooming young people to take up a pursuit that gambling companies portray as fun, harmless and sociable. For most people it will remain that way. But for those who fall into addiction, the consequences are life-threatening.
The torrent of sports betting advertising is grooming young people … to take up a pursuit that gambling companies portray as fun, harmless and sociable.
In September last year, the Parliament of Australia Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs (the Committee) initiated an inquiry into online gambling and its impacts on problem gamblers. The personal stories in this article are taken from that inquiry’s submissions. In June 2023, the inquiry published its report. Its principal recommendation was resolute:
A phased, comprehensive ban on all gambling advertising on all media – broadcast and online – that leaves no room for circumvention, is needed. Partial bans on advertising do not work.
The report was lauded. Up to 70 per cent of Australians support an outright ban on online gambling advertising, which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has described as ‘reprehensible.’
But three months later, despite the Committee calling for phase one to commence immediately (a prohibition on all online gambling inducements, a prohibition on online gambling advertising online and on social media, and a prohibition on online gambling advertising on commercial radio during school drop off times), the government continues to ‘give consideration to the recommendations.’
The recommendations have powerful opponents.
The AFL and NRL have huge deals with Sportsbet – estimated to be up to $10 million per year each. On-ground advertising is worth another $3 million. The big windfall for the sporting codes, however, is an agreement with the bookies for something that has come to be known as ‘product fees’. For every dollar that sports betting companies make on AFL-related bets, the AFL receives somewhere around 10 per cent, estimated to be up to $40 million per year. The same is true for the NRL, and to a lesser extent the A League, NBL and the Australian Open.
During the inquiry’s hearings, the AFL and NRL said that they are significantly leveraged by gambling interests, and a loss of revenue would affect their operations. But despite having dire warnings issued, the major sporting codes didn’t provide any specifics when the Committee asked them exactly how much gambling revenue they receive and exactly how their operations would be slimmed down.
The Committee was critical of this lack of response, and particularly of AFL CEO Gil McLachlan, who told 3AW radio in March this year that there was ‘probably too much gambling advertising’, then walked back on those comments during his evidence to the Committee.
Free TV Australia – the peak body for Australia’s commercial free-to-air broadcasters – is also unhappy with the proposed advertising ban, telling the Committee that free-to-air sports broadcasts are at risk with further restrictions on gambling advertising. It is estimated that Channel 7 receives approximately $47m per year from gambling advertising under its current broadcasting deal with the AFL — almost a third of its total AFL-related broadcasting revenue. The same is likely true for Channel 9 and the NRL. But when the Committee asked the peak body to justify its warnings, Free TV Australia was unwilling to provide any revenue figures. The Committee was less than pleased.
This issue is complicated by the fact that governments across Australia face their own dependency – in this case, to the tax dollars they reap from the addictive phenomenon that is gambling. Governments across Australia receive more than seven billion dollars of annual revenue from gambling taxes. The NSW government receives 15 per cent of every gambling company’s wagering revenue above $1 million, and the Victorian government receives 10 per cent. All states and territories other than the NT have a similar ‘point of consumption’ tax.
governments across Australia face their own dependency – to the tax dollars they reap from the addictive phenomenon that is gambling
‘More measured’ action
Presumably reluctant to take action that might reduce their share of the pie, governments have been unwilling to implement wholesale changes to gambling regulations. Responsible Wagering Australia – the gambling industry’s peak body – has encouraged the federal government to continue with this reticence, decrying the Committee’s recommendation to ban all ads as a ‘step too far [that] jeopardises the future of sporting codes and local broadcasters,’ and calling instead for ‘more measured’ options such as capping the number of gambling ads.
The Committee seems to have anticipated this response from industry. Its report asserts:
Partial bans on gambling advertising do not work … Gambling advertising on television [is] increasing. Harmful industries have shown they will identify and capitalise on any gaps in marketing restrictions and that they are taking advantage of the less regulated online environment.
In 2017, the Turnbull Government launched a so-called ‘crackdown on gambling advertising on live sporting coverage’, an example of a ‘more measured’ option that has had little effect. Four years later an average of 948 gambling ads were broadcast daily on free-to-air TV – a huge jump from 2017.
Readers may recall the oxymoronic slogan ‘gamble responsibly’, which followed all gambling advertisements for many years. This government-mandated tagline didn’t work, and earlier this year it was scrapped for seven research-based taglines that must be displayed or recited immediately after all gambling ads, including ‘Chances are you’re about to lose’, ‘What’s gambling really costing you?’ and ‘Imagine what you could be buying instead’.
Notably, the only one of these seven taglines that invites practical action – ‘What are you prepared to lose today? Set a deposit limit’ – is the only tagline that never seems to appear after gambling ads.
And even if the other six are more effective than ‘gamble responsibly’ in deterring problem gambling, they each place the onus for reducing harm on the person who gambles. In a business model that encourages harm, these ‘more measured’ changes are flimsy defences against the pull of addiction.
Enough is enough
The Committee has declared: ‘enough is enough.’ It has urged the federal government to adopt a public health approach to gambling addiction, as it did so effectively decades earlier to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use. In addition to the total advertising ban, the 31 recommendations include a call for a comprehensive national strategy and uniform regulation, and consideration of mandatory pre-commitment loss limits to prevent unintended and excessive use.
In 21st century Australia, the gambling industry has too much influence over how online gambling is regulated. The sooner governments come to term with the inevitable, and outlaw addiction-promoting advertising, the sooner they will begin their own recovery process and find revenue sources to replace those they reap from gambling.
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