Trouble down under: Australia’s gambling problem

Some call it the Lucky Country, but Australia is not so fortunate when it comes to wagers. Eighty percent of its citizens engage in some kind of gambling — the highest rate of any country in the world — and they lose more than anyone else, to the tune of some $21.5 billion a year.

Gambling comes in various forms, including lotteries, bingo and sport betting, but the main drivers behind Australia’s epidemic are the electronic gaming machines known as «pokies.»

There’s one poker machine for every 108 people — only tiny Monaco can compete — and over half of all gambling revenue comes from these seemingly friendly but highly addictive machines.

Pokies are an expected part of the décor in most Australian pubs and clubs and nowhere more so than in New South Wales, the indisputable king of the country’s gambling circuit. The state holds the second-largest number of poker machines in the world, only after Nevada. Victoria and South Australia collect the highest annual gambling revenue per capita, about $350 and $300, respectively. The only notable exception is Western Australia, where gaming machines are illegal, leaving most gamblers to make due with the lottery.

While gambling is typically considered the pastime of lonely middle-aged men, in Australia it’s youths aged 18 to 24 who spend the most time and money on poker machines. And it’s proving to be a risky social activity as an estimated 2 percent of Australians have a serious gambling addiction; of them, three-quarters primarily use pokies to gamble.

Each Australian loses, on average, a staggering $1,144 a year in bets, but for addicted gamblers the figure jumps to $21,000 annually — a third of the average Australian salary.

Problem gambling is a major source of public concern — with an estimated social cost of at least $4.7 billion a year — but there are significant political and economic obstacles on Australia’s road to recovery.

For starters, the government has so far failed to implement substantive measures to promote responsible gambling. This may be due to the fact that gambling provides 11 percent of state governments’ revenue and contributes 1.2 percent of the GDP.

Lobbying by the hospitality industry also poses a significant roadblock. In 2010, the government declared its intention to pass a landmark law that would introduce a mandatory «precommitment» on poker machines — requiring gamblers to set how much money they are willing to lose per session and locking them out once the limit is reached. But Clubs NSW and the Australian Hotels Association launched a $20 million marketing campaign against the reform and donated a combined $1.3 million to the two major parties. A year later, the law was repealed.

Today, independent Sen. Nick Xenophon is leading a new push to set a maximum $1 bet on slot machines and cap hourly losses at $120 — many pokies currently allow gamblers to lose more than $1,500 in a single hour.

Australia’s gambling problem is likely to worsen over time with more people reaching legal gambling age every day and thanks to increasing popularity of online gambling services like sports betting are making the dangerous trend harder to monitor.

The government vowed to provide $25.9 million over the next four years to support programs for addicted gamblers, but it will take a major show of political will to help Aussies heed the most important rule of gambling: The house always wins. is a USA TODAY content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage from around the Web. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

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