Gambling on Public Policy
The release of the Productivity Commission's 2009 draft report into gambling produced predictable comments from the same old stagers. But so far the real implications of the Commission's findings have not been put into the spot-light.
Stepping back from gambling for a moment, let's image an alternative public health scenario affecting 68 percent of adult men and 55 percent of adult women, and also 17% of our children. The cause is obvious. The physical and measurable outcomes of this health issue include debilitating illnesses that can lead to premature death though cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoarthritis. Economists estimate that the total cost of this public health crisis approximates $58.2 billion in the last year. The public health crisis referred to is obesity, and these data have been drawn from the House Standing Committee on Health and Ageing's Inquiry into Obesity in Australia.
Let's introduce new laws mandating smart card technology to strictly control the type and number of calories "sold" to innocent people. In the obesity debate, considerable attention is focused on fast food, confectionary and soft drinks as "the crack-cocaine of obesity". Using smart-card technology, a national database can be created so that fat people may only purchase restricted amounts. Fast food, chocolate and soft drink vendors would be specially licensed so that No-smart card permission, no service! Does this sound great? Surely it must help reduce obesity.
So why isn't this system being imposed, or even part of the obesity debate?
The answer probably revolves around our democratic society. It would be Orwellian to implement such a system: big brother out of control. Our response, let's vote out the government.
The Productivity Commission is proposing a system very similar to the one described above as the solution for problem gambling throughout Australia. The implementation of calorie controlled $1 caps and predetermined limits on expenditure would be a shocking precedent in our democratic society.
Moreover, if this system can be justified for gambling, there would never be any real guarantee this centralised system of Government control would not spread to all public health issues. It is time to draw the line.
The newspeak in the Productivity Commission's draft report overlooks that the erroneous and redundant South Oaks Gambling screen (SOGS; which is a series of questions rather than a physical diagnosis) was the foundation of its 1999 recommendations.
The Commission also ignores to mention the number of respondents who are classed as problem gamblers in many state based studies it cites for "recent evidence" is exceptionally low. For instance, the Commission repeatedly cites findings from the 2003 Victorian Longitudinal Community Attitudes Survey but does not mention their comments are based on a mere 27 respondents from a possible sample of 8,479 Victorian residents, and is based on SOGS. As a rule of thumb "by increasing sample size, smaller and smaller effects will be found to be statistically significant until at very large sample sizes almost any effect is significant" (Hair, Anderson, Tatham and Black 1998, p12). These best estimates suggest only about 1% of people in our community may suffer from gambling related disorders.
There is a sustained downward trend apparent in problem gambling studies in Australia. Moreover, problem gambling causality has not been proved against any particular form of gambling product and many plausible alternative scenarios exist. For example, the Commission neglect to even mention let alone account for the real phenomena of comorbidity (which is when people suffer from more than one disorder e.g. depression, drug addiction) or that people may choose to gamble to escape their problems. If denied the opportunity to gamble, what other consumption choices will people make?
Sound policy should not be based on ruins and old mistakes. The Productivity Commission's charter is not to act as thought-police. There is time for the Commission to address and rectify their call for a big-brother state and the national control of our consumption. The father of the US constitution Thomas Jefferson once called for a wall of separation between church and state; with the advancement of technology there is a need to move past newspeak to protect our basic rights to live without big-brother intervention.
Dr Rohan Miller (Discipline of Marketing, Faculty of Economics and Business, The University of Sydney) has consulted to not-for-profit organisations in the hospitality and gambling sector, been employed in hotel management and worked for a gaming and technology company.