The new Clubs Australia campaign borrows heavily from tobacco industry strategies
A GetUp spoof of the campaign is worth watching, and runs along the lines…we like to blame the gambler and not our addictive life destroying product, a trick we’ve learnt from our mates in the tobacco industry.
In the article below, public health advocate Charles Livingstone argues that Clubs Australia is borrowing heavily from the handbook of the tobacco industry’s resistance to regulation and reform.
Who do they think they’re fooling?
Charles Livingstone writes:
Clubs Australia spent much of the last 18 months battling the Australian government over the introduction of a universal pre-commitment scheme to allow poker machine users to determine their maximum losses in advance.
Their anti-reform campaign involved some half-baked ads portraying unhindered access to high impact poker machines as a basic human right (‘it’s unAustralian!’), followed by a campaign to bludgeon nervous ALP backbenchers into submission, promising a $20 million war chest for marginal seat campaigns unless effective pokie reform was abandoned.
The ‘unAustralian’ campaign was a laughing stock; the political threat was grimly effective, leading Ms Gillard to tear up her agreement with Wilkie.
Having achieved their goal of delaying effective reform, the clubs now want to convince us all that they are, in fact, the good guys.
Using the finale of The Voice as their platform, they’ve launched a campaign to present themselves as leaders in the struggle against problem gambling. They will spend $2 million on TV ads in coming weeks, buying spots on high rating programs including MasterChef.
To go along with their televised rehabilitation campaign, the clubs have announced a plan to promote ‘responsible gambling’.
‘Responsible gambling’ is a great idea from the point of view of the pro-gambling lobby – because it downloads responsibility for gambling problems onto the shoulders of individuals trapped by the 200,000 poker machines on offer in Australia – at the 6,000 clubs represented by ClubsAustralia, at Casinos, and at the pubs operated by Coles, Woolworths and others.
The plan proposed by the clubs involves action at the level of individuals, in one form or another. All are either about rescuing individuals who have developed gambling problems, or ‘educating’ them about gambling. Or, of course, attacking their competitors.
The latter excluded, these are identical to tobacco and alcohol industry tactics, where personal responsibility is invoked to reject effective measures such as, in the case of alcohol and tobacco, increased prices, advertising and sponsorship restrictions, and stricter licensing requirements, in favour of education campaigns promoting ‘responsible drinking’ or whatever.
This approach has at least two effects: it purports to present the industry in question as ‘concerned’ and active in promoting harm reduction; and it promotes measures which we know on the basis of evidence to be largely if not completely ineffective. You CAN have your cake and eat it, too!
The clubs argue that gambling isn’t such a big problem (so why do we need a $2 million campaign?); that there are other gambling modes that aren’t being addressed; that self-exclusion and counselling will work wonders, particularly if venue staff identify ‘problem gamblers’ and support them to get help, and that voluntary pre-commitment is a terrific idea that they really wanted to implement all along had Wilkie not got in their way.
Facts and logic have never been the strong points of the clubs anti-reform campaign, and this plan continues that tradition. They rely on estimates of problem gambling prevalence prepared by the Institute for Public Affairs (frankly, I’ll take the Productivity Commission’s estimates ahead of the IPA’s any day), ignore the fact that 75% or more of Australia’s gambling problems derive from poker machine use, and that 40% or more of poker machine expenditure derives from problem gamblers, with another 20% coming from ‘moderate risk’ gamblers.
The clubs also propose to train staff to identify problem gamblers and intervene to offer help. This is a noble idea, but anyone who frequents pokie venues knows what a 2007 study of Tasmanian venues identified – that more than half of the person-hours spent in gambling venues are attributable to people with a gambling problem. The staff would be pretty busy dishing out help if this plan were actually implemented. They probably wouldn’t have time for anything else, in fact.
In Australian trials of voluntary pre-commitment, by the way, one fact was inescapable; almost no one took it up. Why would you?
Without a support system (such as universal pre-commitment) self-exclusion is very ineffective. A self-exclusion system that relies on a passport-sized photo behind the counter or on a computer to identify the excluded is a joke – as many self-excluded gamblers have told me regularly. And in any event, there’s no shortage of pokie venues in Australia – particularly in NSW.
And, although counselling is a great idea for many people and certainly helps to deal with gambling problems, it is not a preventive measure; it doesn’t systematically stop the problem from developing.
The clubs will tell us that education programs and ‘hard-hitting’ advertising campaigns will fill that role. Once again, these are classic tobacco and alcohol industry tactics. Education and advertising have a role when effective regulatory measures are implemented; but on their own, they are largely ineffective.
Better regulation and enforcement of rules about seat belts, drink-driving, speeding and unsafe vehicles have achieved significant improvements in road trauma rates, for example. The gory accident ads show us why we need the rules; but we drive better and safer because we know we have a pretty fair chance of getting caught if we don’t.
The lesson from successful public health campaigns – such as tobacco control, and road safety – is that real reform relies on effective change to the system that creates the problem.
With pokies, it’s the product that’s the problem. Australian pokies, particularly those in NSW, are high intensity, allowing $10,000 to be loaded up in one go, and $10 to be wagered on every spin, once every couple of seconds or so. You can lose $1,200 per hour very readily, and anyone who visits a pokie venue and keeps their eyes open will see it happen in any hour of the day, every day of the week.
The people caught up in this hugely efficient harm production system are ordinary people, with ordinary families. At any given time in Australia, at least 100,000 are trapped in this system, and another 150,000 well on the way. They pay a heavy price, in the destruction of their mental and physical health, and financially and otherwise, but so do their husbands and wives and children and employers and family and friends.
It seems pretty clear that the clubs opposed the introduction of pre-commitment for the same reason that big tobacco opposes plain packaging – because they think it would actually work. They oppose the introduction of $1 maximum bets, a reform widely supported in the research and reform communities (and which Mr Wilkie first proposed to the Prime Minister in 2010, only to be sold pre-commitment as an alternative) for the same reason.
Francois de la Rochefoucauld is said to have quipped that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. The last 18 months have highlighted the problem that pokies present; as much as most of our politicians would like it to go away, it cannot easily be ignored. The clubs have worked this out; and this campaign is their tribute.
• Charles Livingstone is with the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University. On Twitter: @CLdeFootscray