In 2017, University Academic Professor Laurie Brown went public with her story about gambling harm. We spoke to Laurie about her decision to speak out and her attempts to untangle the blurred responsibilities between clubs, banks and regulators, while embarking on a significant personal and public journey through the long tail of consequences.
I had started to learn about this because, when I “came out” as an addictive gambler both my partner and I questioned how did I get into such a destructive situation and what could we do about this so others don’t suffer as we have? What was my level of responsibility? And what was the responsibility of the clubs and the banks? What were the regulations, and did these fail somehow to provide adequate protection for people like me who have a gambling addiction? So, we started to investigate the rules governing the operation of poker machines in the ACT.
Why did you speak out?
My partner and I were listening to ABC Radio and there was a discussion about the need for reform with poker machines in the ACT and my partner said to me, “You should ring up and provide a personal story.” We thought we were in a position where we were able to speak out and when I contacted the local radio station they were keen to hear my story.
Now, I did that because we felt the story of impacted people was not being heard, and a message was getting promoted by the clubs which minimised the damage done through the provision of poker machines and lack of adherence by clubs to the Code of Practice which is required under the Gaming Machine Act in the ACT.
What’s happened since then?
Well it’s a mixed story. In many ways I think it’s been really positive because I’ve been a focal point which has mobilised a lot of stakeholders interested in harm minimisation from problem gambling. So, my speaking out has galvanised actions from a lot of organisations, both the ACT Government and organisations in the local community.
I’ve seen a number of changes over the 18 months’ journey we have had and many more reforms are occurring. For example, because my gambling was facilitated through access to an EFTPOS machine within a club, the use of these facilities was investigated and action taken to restrict cash withdrawals being made from EFTPOS. There’s a limit on accessing funds at an ATM but the clubs were bypassing that law by providing people access to EFTPOS facilities.
So, that’s just one small change that occurred in the regulations. There are also broader changes being advocated in terms of the effectiveness of self-exclusion, the monitoring of gambling action on the floors of actual clubs, clubs reporting prob- lem gambling incidents and interest in bet limits and pre-commitments.
On the negative side, is the whole question about personal responsibility. There’s a small section within the community who really say, “Oh well, it’s her responsibility, it’s her money. Clubs can’t be held responsible for her gambling her money away.” Some comments on social media were very hurtful, but these showed some people have no real understanding that poker machines
are purposely designed to be addictive, and that clubs by their behaviours are facilitating this addiction. They are making extraordinary amounts of money by ignoring their legislated requirements under the responsible provision of gambling services.
Another positive is that it’s given encouragement to other people. Straight- away I got a flow of emails from members of the university community. Academic and professional staff said they were really pleased I had spoken out about my gambling. Many of the emails said we have this prob- lem within our family and thanked me for highlighting it. We have had support across the Canberra community and, in fact, across Australia. It’s given people encouragement by understanding they’re not alone and drawing attention to opportunities for intervention.
Was there a moment you realised things needed to change?
Not as such. Being upfront, I was caught out because the bank rang my partner and said all these transactions have been made out of a bank account at a club. It was a similar story to a lot of gambling addicts. I don’t like the term problem gambler be- cause I don’t think I’m a problem. I have
an addiction which is recognised in the medical world alongside other addictions, for example, use of illicit drugs. For some people, gambling impacts a similar part of your brain.
Now, I had an issue with compulsive gambling back in late 2011 to 2012. I self-excluded myself and went to various support programs and was good for about three years. To this day, I don’t know why I went back into a club. I don’t think I really understood how addictive poker machines were for me. I went into a club and that was my immediate downfall.
What would you like to see happen in Canberra?
A lot of people say, “Ooh you’re against poker machines.”
No, I’m not against poker machines but I’m against the way they are currently operated. They are designed to be addictive, are misleading and deceptive. Removing those elements would be the first step. Now, there is a great deal of resistance to this because the clubs would not be making the money they are because the machines would no longer be addictive. The greatest proportion of money made from poker machines comes from addictive gamblers. However, such a step would minimise the harm that occurred to me, in terms of our family finances, my relationship, our mental wellbeing and health, and socially. People don’t understand these wide problems.
I also would look at what our so-called community clubs are doing. I don’t believe they are being responsible in the provision of gambling services. Clubs are now held accountable for the “Responsible Service of Alcohol”. If a club’s staff member kept serving drinks to someone who is intoxicated, they would be fined immediately (presuming they were caught). They would be held accountable. So there’s an issue for running of gaming machines that we need the same regulations, policing and penalties when the law is broken. So, what is happening on the floor of clubs?
I’m a researcher and I work with numbers. I went through my bank accounts and looked at every single transaction. Because I only went to one club, I can look back and see all my ATM and EFTPOS transactions. I can see I was going to this club three nights a week, I usually went from 10.30pm to 4.00am, being thrown out when the club closed, and made multiple cash withdrawals often tallying in the thousands of dollars a night. And all of a sudden you realise all these activities you did, which only an addicted person would do.
Then you can go to issues around how people are playing the machines. The research shows most people don’t spend more than a dollar or maybe two dollars per spin, so why not have a maximum spin limit? As an addictive gambler, I frequently would bet $10 a spin and you can easily play 10-15 spins a minute. Even if you get 85% of the money you put in back, it still ends up with you losing a lot of money over an evening. So restrict this and I’d be looking towards the idea of pre-commitments.
And then more broadly I’d be undertaking major reform to the regulations governing the provision and operation of poker machines. Going through a formal complaints process showed us and the regulators that these
all need to be updated with our current understanding of addictive gambling as well as tightening the legal obligations of clubs. Problem gambling is now seen to be part of public health and harm minimisation approaches. We know what the signs of addictive gambling are and we know the clubs largely ignore these. So, the regulations need to reflect what we know about addictive gambling and what requirements need
to be placed on the behaviour of clubs as providers of gambling services for harm minimisation.
What would you say to someone thinking about speaking out?
Overwhelmingly, I’ve had a positive response and speaking out has been part of my recovery. By speaking out, I had to confront my addiction, what I’d been doing, why I was doing it, and what I needed to do to change.
When you’re recovering, you can put in place a whole range of steps, which is really good. But gambling has a long tail, it follows you for a long time. So, you can start recovering your financial position, but how do you rebuild your relationships? Ordinary couples might have arguments, but things like, “How could you have lied for so long? How could you have spent all that money?” come up because that’s something you’ve done and often for a long time. It’s not that you’re trying to ignore your loved one or exclude them. You’ve got an addiction. So that’s why I say it’s a long tail. If you’re fortunate enough that your partner, like mine, is prepared to stay with you, then there are issues, like trust, that you have to grapple with. I wasn’t doing this to hurt him.
You do have to face the consequences. There’s an argument that you should look forward and not necessarily back, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore what’s happened.
So I’ve taken personal responsibility. I had to learn about what I did, why I did it and speak about it.
I now know, I have an addiction. It’s like an alcohol addiction, you cannot have that first drink. I now know I can’t go into a club and go near a poker machine because it will have the same impact. I’ve put in place tools that will help me to live with the addiction and overcome the harm it causes. I do take some personal responsibility for it, but it’s also a responsibility of those clubs who provide gambling services. They have legal responsibilities in terms of the Code of Practice and the legislation.
And I think that is where there are a lot of problems. The clubs that are providing those services are not adhering to the existing legislative regulatory requirements, but these also need updating.
Laurie’s Story was first published in “Stories of Chance” by ACT Council of Social Services.