I expect that the bill to repeal the Gillard Government’s changes to poker machine regulation will go through the Senate, despite protests from various quarters. The reason is that the Labor Caucus has agreed to support the Coalition Government on repeal. Why has it done so? Because Labor only ever put through a watered-down version of what Andrew Willkie wanted, and did that only because they needed his support on the floor of the House. They no longer need it, because it makes no difference, given the Coalition’s most comfortable majority there.

And what is more, Labor would not, in my view, have put through the legislation on its own initiative anyway. From every quarter both sides of politics have been hearing stories of doom and gloom about what will happen to the clubs should these measures really occur, let alone what Andrew Willkie wanted. The Act provided for pre-commitment — you, the gambler, needed to specify how much you were prepared to lose before you started playing. And if you ran out of money there would not be a handy ATM a few metres away inside the club.

The aim of the legislation was to try to protect the ‘problem gambler’, the person who cannot control the amount of money or time that he or she spends on the pursuit. Some see pathological gambling — or ‘ludomania’, my new word for today — as an addiction, others see it as an impulse control disorder. There seems to be some evidence for problem gamblers’ having lower levels of naturally occurring substances in their system, and gamble to substitute, thereby seeking thrills or satisfaction that are not needed by the ordinary mass of us. Wikipedia tells us that:  According to a study conducted by Alec Roy, formerly at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, norepinephrine is secreted under stress, arousal, or thrill, so pathological gamblers gamble to make up for their under-dosage.[8] 

I have heard similar advice from people who have worked closely with problem gamblers, and you hear talk of the ‘addictive gene’, too. It doesn’t take much reading to learn that we know very little about any of this, and estimates of the incidence of problem gambling can run to two per cent of the adult population. Since I’ve only ever come across one such person in my life, I find the figure implausibly high.

No matter, the question that fascinates me is what governments ought to be doing about it, if anything. I’m not a gambler myself, and not a member of a licensed club. And it is the machines that are the problem, so far as research tells us, especially for women. The nags, dogs, lotteries, casinos and the rest don’t seem to be important in this context. Plainly the machines have a fascination for some people, though feeding money into them strikes me as an utterly boring thing to do.  But why do the problem ones have to be protected by the state?

We don’t protect people who buy shares, or real estate or indeed anything, when their behaviour is not in their own best interests. To blame the machines seems to me to miss the point. We have alcoholics, too, but it is not liquor shops or hotels or clubs that are their problem — it is alcoholism. Recidivist drink drivers — people who offend again and again against the law with respect to blood alcohol — are not fundamentally problem drivers. They are alcoholics for whom getting alcohol is much more important than obeying the law. We don’t really know how to deal with them, either.

While I sympathise with Andrew Willkie at the loss of his law, I don’t think it was a good law. It was an example of the ‘nanny state’. At the same time I don’t think licensed clubs are a great thing either, and they have changed the character of our society for ill as well as good. My policy is not to ban things that people want to do, even if it might cause them harm. If they may later cause the community harm, through the need for expensive medical help, as in the case of tobacco, then tax them appropriately. The clubs are taxed as it is, alcohol and tobacco are taxed, gambling is taxed. Those of us who don’t participate in those activities gain the benefit of the increased revenue that governments receive.

And governments might use some of their revenue from gambling to seek and fund good research on exactly what is the thing that causes ludomania (there, I’ve used it already). It seems that a little research is being done, but I could not discover generalisable results.

(Quick update: At lunch yesterday I was told of pharmaceutical preparations that seem in some instances to lead to strange behaviour on the part of the patient, including pathological and destructive gambling. You can read about it at http://www.tga.gov.au/hp/aadrb-0508.htm#a3)

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