Under the radar: what responsible gambling legislation doesn’t prevent
Hing, N. 2007, 'Under the radar: what responsible gambling legislation doesn’t prevent, paper presented to 17th Annual National Association for Gambling Studies Conference, Cairns, Qld., 14-16 November.
This paper presented a case study of responsible gambling practices at one large club, drawing on interviews with patrons, frontline and supervisory staff. It illustrated that legal compliance alone does not guarantee social responsibility in the provision of gambling services. While operating within the law, the club was characterised as a venue focused almost exclusively on promoting gambling and heavy gambling, where gambling problems amongst patrons were reportedly widespread, and where predatory practices, unsavoury incidents and gambling syndicates were commonplace. While the practices discussed in the paper were specific to one club, they highlight broader concerns about the effectiveness of responsible gambling legislation to achieve its aims. While the legislation may be underpinned by good intentions, this paper demonstrated that it still leaves much opportunity for its requirements to be rendered largely ineffective. Findings relating to each responsible gambling measure are summarised in some detail below as the paper is not yet publicly available:
• Signage was overwhelmingly considered ineffective, because stickers on machines are in such small print that older people have difficulty reading them, people generally do not read signs, and they are lost amongst the colour and movement on the gaming floor. Signage was seen as there to meet requirements of the law and no more.
• Self-exclusion was considered a good option, but seemed inconsistently applied. The self-exclusion documentation stated a minimum exclusion period of 12 months, yet most staff thought it was for 2 years, with one duty manager advising patrons that exclusion was for life, at which point 70-80% changed their minds about self-excluding. Additionally, the club signage stated that patrons can be excluded from nominated club areas, whereas the documentation stated that self-excludees cannot access any club areas, ‘not even for dinner’. There was also much scepticism about effective monitoring for breaches of self-exclusion, given the number of self-exclusions (reportedly in the hundreds), the small passport-size photos, their unavailability to floor staff, and their location in a folder in the security office.
• Gaming promotions were reportedly minimal at this club. However, the Rewards Club and loyalty system were criticised for providing undue encouragement to gamble and for ‘cultivating a community of big gamblers’. One staff member saw this ‘cut price gambling’ as ‘the biggest issue’, where ‘the more they spend the more we give them, constantly rewarding the behaviour’. Others saw it as potentially open to future litigation, as a patron could contend that ‘you have encouraged me to gamble and now I want it back’.
• The gaming environment. This was criticised for having very limited seating, encouraging patrons to sit at a machine and preventing people from getting away from the machines. One staff member noted that, as ‘gambling is the core business, there is not much seating as it (the club) needs to encourage people to play machines’. One patron contended that management had deliberately removed seating to stop people drinking, socialising and distracting machine players. The gaming room was criticised for being too cluttered, making it very difficult for two or more people to play one machine together, thereby encouraging everyone to each play a machine. There was very little other seating, again encouraging patrons to sit at a machine.
• Drink service to the gaming machines was seen as encouraging players to stay at machines. One staff member commented that it is ‘easier to get a drink while still playing a machine than to queue at the bar’. It was also noted that soft drinks and coffee were priced 40-50 cents cheaper at the machines than at the bar. Drink service also means that ‘staff can’t keep track of intoxication levels’.
• Reserving machines. The limit of 3 minutes on reserving machines was seen as discouraging breaks in play, as this was not long enough for a toilet break or to get something to eat. One duty manager also explained that players are deterred from leaving a machine because ticket printers now enable anyone to collect winnings on an unattended machine, even if reserved.
• Game and machine design. $50 and $100 note acceptors were criticised, and large jackpots. If jackpots were smaller, noted one staff member, then ‘players wouldn’t … try and win them by playing for so many hours’. Vouchers for machine payouts were also temptation to keep playing and possibly losing a win, because ‘they don’t want to get up and go and cash in the voucher’. Further observations related to the ticket in-ticket out machines, that ‘it doesn’t feel like you’re spending the money’ and ‘it makes it easier to keep playing’. One patron commented it is ‘the worst thing in the world’ as it is ‘too easy to put the ticket into the next machine’.
• Cash payment of winnings. The increased cash payment from $1,000 to $2,000 was criticised by some as ‘going against the spirit of responsible gambling’, with one staff member contending that 90% of players put the winnings straight back in. Another noted that ‘a lot take the maximum cash amount, take the cheque and cash it at money lenders, no questions asked’.
• Responsible gambling training. Most staff and duty managers interviewed had been working at the club for over 10 years so their most recent responsible gambling training had been 5 or 6 years ago when it became mandatory. No refresher courses had been conducted, despite changes in legislation and gaming technologies. Newer staff had been trained more recently, but because they must be trained before commencing work, the value of that training was limited, with no practical experience or context to make it meaningful, and no awareness of the complexity and diversity of situations they were likely to encounter.
Children. Some were critical that children could easily see and hear the gaming machines from the club restaurant, and others felt that the video-type games in the children’s area, which all required money to be inserted, were acculturating children to gaming machines. Another commented that ‘people come in and lose track of time. They forget to pick up their kids. Children are left in the amusement centre’.
• Gambling syndicates. A major concern for all three groups of interviewees were several gambling syndicates operating in the club, adding to its perception as a ‘gambling den’. One patron, a member of the club for 30 years, had worked for one of these syndicates for 9 years and explained their operation. The syndicates target linked jackpots when they are close to their maximum (e.g. at $4,900 for a jackpot that must go off before $5,000). They each have between six and ten club members working for them, who are at the club when it opens to ensure they have all linked machines covered. The syndicate boss then finances them to play until the jackpot is won. The ‘workers’ share 10%-20% of the profits from that jackpot and the syndicate boss keeps the rest. This patron contended that his boss earns around $9,000 per week from the syndicate. Not surprisingly, non-syndicate members were extremely disgruntled about this, and staff and middle managers felt they could not do anything to stop it, as it was not illegal and not against club rules.
The case study demonstrated that it is possible for a venue to adhere to responsible gambling regulations, yet fail to effectively implement certain measures or to have their effectiveness circumvented in other ways. Given that the jurisdiction in question has some of the most stringent responsible gambling legislation in Australia, it paints a sorry picture in terms of outcomes for gamblers, their families and the wider community.