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Gambling related community harm exceeds that of drug use

Study finds gambling related community harm exceeds that of drug use disorders and common physical health problems

New research conducted for the New Zealand Ministry of Health by Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Central Queensland University (CQU) found harm associated with gambling is almost double that of drug use disorders, bipolar affective disorder, eating disorders and schizophrenia combined.

The study is the first in New Zealand, and only the second in the world, to measure the aggregate ‘burden of harm’ attributed to gambling, and uses a standard public health methodology endorsed by the World Health Organisation to compare gambling to other well-researched health issues.

The findings showed that overall at a community level, gambling is associated with almost 3 times more harm than drug use disorders, 2.5 times more than diabetes and 2.1 times more than osteoarthritis. It falls only a little short of harm arising from anxiety and depression, and hazardous alcohol drinking.

“The harm associated with gambling is substantially more than we originally thought,” says Professor Max Abbott, Director of the AUT Gambling and Addictions Research Centre. “These findings are unexpected and will have a huge impact internationally.”

Professor Abbott, who has just returned from an international forum at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, says he believes the findings of this and a related Australian study will help get gambling onto the international health agenda.

“While serious problem gamblers and people close to them experience the greatest harm, the study shows that many other people are harmed by gambling. In fact, low-risk gamblers are associated with the greatest proportion of New Zealand’s gambling-related harm.”

“This means that a significant amount of gambling-related harm in the community arises from people who don’t meet the psychiatric definition for gambling disorder. The reason for this is that people with lower risk and problem levels greatly outnumber those at the severe end of the spectrum.”

Low and moderate-risk gamblers accounted for 80% of gambling-related harm; serious problem gamblers the remaining 20%.

According to the study, a problem gambler experiences about half the quality of life compared to ideal health and wellbeing — about the same as a person with severe alcohol problems. However, a low-risk gambler’s quality of life is still reduced by about 20% — in health terms this is similar to a person with moderate ongoing difficulty breathing normally.

In examining the harms associated with gambling, the researchers found six main areas, including decreased health; emotional or psychological distress; financial harm; reduced performance at work or education; relationship disruption, conflict or breakdown; and criminal activity. In addition, these harms were categorised into minor (e.g. increased credit card debt), crisis/extreme harms (e.g. relationship breakdown) and legacy harms that continue after the gambling has stopped (e.g. lower quality of life due to loss of major assets).

“It’s important to note that not all harms are equal. Problem gamblers can experience debilitating consequences on their quality of life, whereas people at low-risk levels might experience manageable but persistent effects that can get in the way of enjoying life,” says Professor Abbott.

A low-risk gambler is unlikely to experience a critical consequence such as bankruptcy, but is likely to experience problems such as unmanageable credit card debt, and having less money to spend on essential expenses.

“Our findings indicate that interventions designed to reduce harm from gambling need to focus not just on reducing the prevalence of problem gambling, but rather on minimising gambling-related harm across the entire spectrum of risky gambling behaviour.”


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