The source of harm from gambling is commonly located with the excessive consumption by a small group of people referred to as “problem gamblers”. While, certainly, the misery experienced by problem gamblers and their families are of major concern, this is not where the real drivers for gambling harm are located.

The primary driver for gambling harm is not the problem gambler, rather it is our escalating consumption of and reliance on gambling profits.

Gambling, as a consumption with addictive potential, is capable of yielding massive profits, particularly profits derived from the more potent forms of gambling such as electronic gambling machines and casino tables.

Four main groups then benefit from these profits: governments with an interest in tax revenue, local entrepreneurs with an interest in commercial growth, international gambling corporations with an interest in global dominance and community organisations with an interest in knock-on funding opportunities.

These four groups are not peripheral beneficiaries of the central activity of consuming gambling products. On the contrary, the central activity associated with gambling can be seen as the production of profits, with the core form of consumption, the consumption of these profits.

Organisations with a clear duty to limit the harm from gambling (such as government health departments, treatment agencies, community organisations and researchers) are also entangled with the consumption of these profits. As they increase their profit consumption, they find themselves inevitably positioned on the horns of a very uncomfortable dilemma.

On the one hand, if they are successful in reducing the extent of problem gambling, they could, as a consequence, face significant reductions in their own income. But, on the other hand, if they do nothing regarding the harms, they risk being perceived as complicit in profiteering from the miseries associated with problem gambling.

Furthermore, as consumption of these profits increase, their demand becomes embedded into social and financial structures, which in turn provide the impetus for further increased demand. For example, when health researchers choose to accept funds directly from casinos, they risk engaging in a level of dependency on these profits that could compromise or be seen to compromise their academic independence.

Similarly, as governments consume more of these profits in the form of tax revenue, they find it more difficult to consider efforts that might lead to significant reductions in the scale of profit production. For example, in some Australian jurisdictions, gambling contributes to over 15 percent of state tax revenue, which then makes it unpalatable for the voting public to consider any reductions in gambling consumption.

Whether the main consumer of gambling profits are private corporates or whether they are government or community agencies, as the scale of profit production increases so does entrenched forms of reliance on this form of consumption.

Viewing the problem gambler as the main problem diverts attention away from the more important processes that underpin gambling as a social issue. Changes in gambling harm are very unlikely to occur if we only focus on consumers of gambling. The real obstacles for change reside with those who consume gambling profits.

The way forward will depend on the willingness of profit consumers to consider limiting their reliance on this form of dangerous consumption.

This leads to asking: under what circumstances might local entrepreneurs consider constraining their profits? What might lead international corporates consider scaling down their promotion practices? What might lead community organizations to consider reducing their reliance on such profits? And, what pressures might prompt governments to consider reductions in revenue from gambling?

These are perplexing questions with no obvious easy solutions. But they cut to at the heart of the problem: reduction of harm from gambling is closely intertwined with reductions in the consumption of gambling profits.

For more, read the article: Redefining the gambling problem: The production and consumption of gambling profits

See also the book: Gambling Freedom and Democracy

Text and photo by Peter J. Adams