22 November 2001

A University of Queensland researcher has told a national conference today that the problem gambling debate is heading in the wrong direction.

Rohan Miller of UQ’s Business School at UQ Ipswich said the assumed relationship between pokie numbers and problem gambling numbers was contentious, or even wrong.

"The debate so far is too simplistic," he said.

"Electronic Gaming Machines (EGMs) have been labelled the crack cocaine of gambling: the gambling product most often associated with problem consumption.

"It is commonly speculated that an increase in the number of EGMs will lead to an increase in problem consumption associated with EGMs.

"To examine the truth of this assumption my study plotted the percentage change in the number of machines placed in the Gold Coast region beside percentage changes in clients that nominated Electronic Gaming Machines as their preferred form of gambling.

"It is clear that the rate of increase in clients that nominated EGMs slowed over time. In contrast, the number of EGMs being placed into the region is increasing over time.

"This suggests that the relationship between the number of EGMs and problem gambling may be more sophisticated than commonly supposed and that there are other mitigating factors, such as the diffusion rates of counselling services.

"There are public policy implications if the ratio of problem gambling associated with EGMs is shown to be decreasing over time as much government and social policy is based on the assumption that an increase in EGMs will lead to an increase in problem gambling. This suggests that more detailed research should be undertaken."

Mr Miller was speaking at the National Association of Gambling Studies conference in Sydney.

He presented a study of 1200 problem gamblers seeking gambling counselling on the Gold Coast since the widespread introduction of electronic gaming machines in Queensland in the early 1990s. The data were collected from 1993 until June this year and followed the process of gambling adoption to disadoption.

Mr Miller said problem gambling was an enormous social issue as society tried to minimise harm from excessive gambling, governments tried to maintain or increase their gambling revenue streams, and industry strove for sustainable profits.

The proportion of household disposable income spent on gambling in Australia nearly doubled from 1.7 percent in 1982-83 to 3.2 percent in 1997-98, resulting in overall gambling industry growth of 41.5 percent.

Mr Miller said that just as there was a level of problem consumption with almost all goods and services, there was also problem consumption with gambling products.

"A critical flaw in most gambling analyses is that gambling products are indiscriminately grouped together and discussed as though consumer behaviour in relation to these products is homogeneous," he said.

"My study supports the concept that there are varying problems with different forms of gambling products."

Mr Miller used marketing theory to analyse and interpret many trends and confirmed that gambling consumption followed patterns of behaviour typical of most goods and services. Products had life cycles of introduction, growth, maturity and decline, and consumer behaviours imitated these cycles.

"This theory implies that the level and nature of problem gambling will change over time. The theory also suggests that the adoption of stronger marketing practices by counselling services may increase the rate of diffusion of counselling services and better target potential clients."

He said problems with gambling consumption generally did not exist without many clients experiencing other problems. The issue of causality should be explored by other research as it was presumptuous to assume gambling caused all other problems.

"It is a feasible proposition that gambling consumption at problematic levels is often a symptom of other problems," he said.

Mr Miller said problems with the consumption of any product were not new phenomena. The academic literature and mass media were rife with examples of problem consumption of alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, too much food and a host of other problems.

"As problem consumption existed for many goods and services, the real issue for problem gambling researchers could be to develop better programs to assist consumers with gambling problems and the diffusion of these programs to target groups."

Last year Mr Miller presented several papers at the World Gaming conference in Las Vegas and made a submission to the Queensland Government on national competition policy issues for the Queensland racing industry.

His areas of current research include assessing the influence of advertising on adolescent gambling, the influence of mass media on racing consumption, and customer satisfaction, marketing auditing, and dispute resolution with Internet transactions.

Media: Further information: Rohan Miller, telephone mobile 0411 123455, email: r.miller@gsm.uq.edu.au or Jan King at UQ Communications telephone mobile 0413 601 248.