Online gambling industry regulation back in focus during inquiry's hearings

ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Online gambling industry regulation back in focus during inquiry's hearings

Thanks to online gambling, John is someone who knows how it feels to lose everything. 

  • The federal government launched its inquiry into online gambling last year
  • Industry, stakeholders and researchers will front hearings in Canberra today
  • Some researchers argue betting companies need to do more to ensure problem gamblers are supported to quit

When he still worked and earned good money as a credit manager, losses and gains from gambling were casual and shared with friends at the TAB over lunch. 

However, after being suddenly laid off from his job, and grappling with the toll it took on his mental health, John made an account with an online betting company he had seen advertised again and again during sports games.

Within a month, he lost his entire $170,000 redundancy packet. Six years on, the knock-on effects lost him his marriage and family home. 

Since last year, a federal government inquiry into online gambling has been calling on advocacy groups, people affected by it and gambling companies to put forward their thoughts on how the industry is regulated.

One of the regulations being assessed is whether interventions for problem gamblers are being done responsibly. 

Public hearings will resume in Canberra today with a mix of politicians, researchers and advertisers to be called.

Australians are some of the biggest gamblers — and losers — in the world, at one point holding the world record for biggest gambling nation.

Over the years the gambling industry has faced tougher rules, like tighter restrictions on gambling ads to limit underage viewers, but the emergence and popularity of online gambling has changed the playing field yet again.

According to a report by Central Queensland University, the rate of problem gambling among online gamblers — those who use apps and the internet to place bets — is three times that of those who play the pokies.

John is one of dozens who wrote to the inquiry about the impact his gambling addiction had.

He urged the government to keep a closer eye on betting companies to make sure they were doing their due diligence.

"I take full responsibility for my gambling losses," he said.

"[But] I don't believe in this instance that the betting company acted responsibly once they detected red flags in my gambling activity.

"I was never asked how my excessive gambling spend was being funded, or asked who else might be directly impacted by the severity of the losses.

"Gambling harm has destroyed my life as I knew it."

Betting companies are not directly required to ask customers for proof of income, however, they are expected to identify and perform checks on customers who could be committing financial crimes. 

That includes checking the source of income for individuals who suddenly begin gambling heavily. 

Making it easier for people to walk away

Several of the organisations and stakeholders appearing at today's public hearing advocated in their submissions that freedoms afforded to the gambling industry have been harmful to addicts and problem gamblers.

In its submission Relationships Australia flagged high barriers for gamblers to voluntarily exit as a problem. 

"Clients who seek to reduce their gambling — and even those who have stopped for a period of time — often report receiving attractive incentives if they resume their gambling practices," they said. 

To Charles Livingstone from Monash University, the influence of the gambling industry in encouraging "responsible gambling" has been damaging. 

"'Responsible gambling' is not a preventative paradigm. It can barely be classified as a harm-minimisation approach, given its focus on individual responsibility," Dr Livingstone said in his submission.

The tagline is set to be switched out for a suite of new slogans inviting users to think about what they're losing with their bet. 

Dr Livingstone warned that "careful consideration needs to be given to preventing gambling operators from becoming the architects of their own regulation" in the future. 

Gambling addicts cheat exclusion registers

The racing commission in the Northern Territory licenses the majority of gambling companies in Australia and maintains a central self-exclusion register. 

Although betting websites registered with the commission must provide customers with the option to self-exclude, the process can be complicated.

The NT commission submitted to the inquiry that the current register effectively keeps out self-excluded people through their details, but those suffering from addiction have been known to alter their information to circumvent it.  

Nevertheless, they agreed with other views that "licensees should do more to prevent the harmful effects of problem gambling than simply comply with the bare minimum regulatory requirements". 

The commission and gambling companies, including Tabcorp, have been critical of what they see as a government lag in establishing some customer protections nationally. 

Resources have not been invested into upgrading the NT commission's exclusion register since they "expected that there would be an effective national self-exclusion register by now", it said in its submission.

Tabcorp said it believes state regulations to be outdated and nationally inconsistent, at the cost of effective harm reduction.  

No date has been given for when the committee must hand in its final report. 

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