Harm minimisation in gambling? There’s little evidence it works

There’s a lack of evidence for Australia’s current approach to regulating program gambling, a new paper by ANZSOG says. Harm minimisation needs more research work.

There remains “for the most part only modest evidence” that harm minimisation techniques encouraging responsible gambling actually work, according to a new paper in the current edition of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s Evidence Base journal.

The strongest evidence is for measures imposed outside the control of venues, such as the removal of ATMs, smoking bans and reductions in betting limits, as well as self-exclusion.

And although there is a lack of decisive evidence that individual measures are effective, combining several may help reduce problem gambling, say authors Charles Livingstone, Angela Rintoul and Louise Francis.

This comes as Queensland is removing gambling regulation under the guise of “red tape reduction” and a recent decision by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to allow the installation of more pokies in Braybrook. They’re decisions the paper argues are “capable of making a big difference to the way gambling affects local communities”.

The paper compares a range of studies of harm minimisation techniques surrounding the use of pokies, including self-exclusion, signage, messages, venue staff interaction with gamblers, the removal of ATMs and a reduction in maximum bets.

They contend that the evidence for external interventions is stronger than for voluntary measures such as self-exclusion or signage, which tend to be used more widely in Australia — though the record is nonetheless patchy. But Victoria provides an example of where cumulative changes appear to have made a difference, stating that “real net gambling revenue has declined over a long period” in the state:

“It is notable that the largest impacts on real EGM [electronic gaming machine] revenue in Victoria occurred at the same time as the introduction of the first wave of smoking prohibitions between 2001-02 and 2002-03 (a real decline in revenue of 11.7 in 2009-10 in real terms), and the removal of ATMs from venues in 2012-13 (a real decline in revenue of 9.3 in 2009-10). A smaller revenue decline occurred at the time of the reduction of maximum bets from $10 to $5 (a real decline in revenue of 5.7 between 2008-09 and 2009-10). Overall, the decline in accessibility associated with a global limitation on EGM numbers coupled with a growing population may also have reduced revenue. Further, between 2003 and 2008 in Victoria, EGM gambling participation declined from 33.5 percent of the adult population to 21.5 percent.”

They found no evidence of effectiveness in relation to placing signage near pokies, and stated that it was difficult to determine whether those who used self-exclusion programs to quit gambling would not have done so anyway.

The authors emphasise that a lack of evidence does not necessarily mean other measures are ineffective. Moreover, there are problems with many previous studies in the area, and there is a need for rigorous, reliable data to help drive policy decisions.

For pre-commitment and self-exclusion measures, “the details of implementation and design are critical to the effectiveness of the intervention”, meaning that further studies may be able to pinpoint which factors are most important.

The Productivity Commission’s 2010 report on gambling recommended implementing $1 betting limits for pokies and the introduction of pre-commitment technology. No Australian jurisdiction has yet brought in either, though Nova Scotia, Norway and Sweden have. A voluntary system of pre-commitment is due for implementation in Victoria by December 2015.

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