COVID pushes Australia's gambling addiction online

STORY: Rhys Wareham is a coffee industry technician from Sydney.

He’s also a gambling addict.

His routine was to head down to the local pub every day to play on the poker machines there.

That is until COVID-19 and lockdowns hit.

"All the pubs and venues shut up shop, you had no access to pokie machines for nine months plus, and the addiction didn't go anywhere, so I kind of turned to sports betting applications on my phone and it's been that way ever since."

Unable to reach the machines, he switched to gambling on his phone meaning he could bet on his favorite sport, baseball, anytime, anywhere.

It’s a shift that was seen across Australia in betting behavior since the pandemic.

Gamblers have turned to smartphone apps, exposing them to an industry that is harder to regulate than traditional gambling.

A government report released in September 2021 said Australia was the world's biggest gambling nation by losses per capita, losing an estimated 25 billion Australian dollars, or about $16 billion a year.

Wareham, a 31-year-old father of two, says he's lost more than $100,000 from gambling.

Many app providers, which are often offshore-based bookmakers, have ramped up marketing with text message-based promotional offers, sidestepping advertising restrictions.

"It's just too easy, you know. There is no reform at all on how much advertising these sports betting companies can spend on their marketing, on their advertising, on their promotions."

Wareham says he sees his gambling as shameful, describing his inability to control it as a mental illness that needs support.

“I've had two suicide attempts throughout my life with gambling.”

The concern is echoed by Stu Cameron, CEO of Wesley Mission, which operates the phone counselling service, Lifeline.

"A lot of the calls we get through to our Lifeline services, a proportion of those are people who are suffering through gambling harm and addiction. So we know that gambling harm, you know, is a precursor to significant mental health challenges including suicide ideation."

For Wareham, the first step in tackling this is to regulate advertising.

“The less we see it on billboards, the less we see it in ads, the less we see it. It's only going to be the gamblers, gamblers that want to gamble. Just like we can't advertise cigarettes, why the hell can we advertize gambling?"

The new centre-left federal government said mid-September that it would hold a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry into online gambling.

However the main recommendations of a 2015 inquiry on the same subject, which were accepted by the government at the time, are yet to take effect.

Wareham, says he isn't sure he can kick the gambling addiction completely, but says for now, his online betting habit is under control.

He no longer spends a whole paycheque in one sitting.