Fancy betting on the horses? Have fun, but be warned – the majority of punters lose money, and there will always be more losers than winners.

As Melbourne Cup and Spring carnival frenzy hits the Flemington Racecourse, we’re reminded of just how big horse racing is in Australia. Almost every major state and territory hosts an event each year, and it’s a time of high fashion, excitement, entertainment and, of course, gambling.

However, behind all the glitz and glamour lurks a darker side, the harsh reality of gambling addiction.

Many Australians get so caught up in the fun and games – and the chance of winning big – that they take unhealthy risks and/or become addicted. One example is the jewellery-store employee who stole $192,000 from his employer in 2010 to punt on horses, as reported by the Herald Sun.

What exactly constitutes gambling addiction, who is at risk and what is the situation in Australia? How can you tell if you or someone you love has a problem? We answer a few important questions.

What is gambling addiction?

Compulsive gambling is a progressive illness that starts out as a recreational activity and ends up being destructive to both the gambler and his or her loved ones. The main symptom of this addiction is denial and the major characteristic is loss of control. There’s also a tendency to take bigger and bigger risks as time goes by. It becomes an overriding passion that permeates all aspects of the gambler's life. Inability to stop gambling and continuing to gamble despite negative consequences are also characteristics of the addiction.

There are both social and economic costs involved when someone is addicted to gambling. These include poverty, starvation, family disintegration and criminal behaviour.

People who gamble to excess often suffer from feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as muscular tension, fatigue, headaches and high blood pressure. Employees who have a gambling addiction also don’t perform well at work as they’re preoccupied with the next bet, debt problems, how to get hold of money etc.


Who is at risk?

Research has shown that gambling addiction seems to increase with availability of gambling opportunities and accessibility to gambling facilities. People who are on low incomes or unemployed are particularly vulnerable to gambling addiction, while thrill-seekers and impulsive people are also at risk.

Young men between 16 and 30 who play fruit and slot machines, in addition to betting on horses, are at risk for becoming gambling addicts. Older women tend to prefer scratch cards, bingo and slot machines.

Gambling addiction is something that can happen to anybody who gambles.

How big is gambling in Australia?

An estimated 80% of Australians engage in some form of gambling – the highest rate of any country in the world – and they lose in the region of $21 billion per year on betting. While gambling appears in various forms in this country (sports betting, bingo, lottery etc.), it’s the slot machines – affectionately known as “pokies” – that are most frequently played in Australia.

Gambling seems to be particularly problematic among Australian teens, and both young men and women are affected.

A 2011 Bond University study, which surveyed some 2 000 Australian respondents aged 15 to 19, found that the preferred method of gambling among this young age group is poker.This is particularly problematic, as the risk for problem gambling is more than three times as high for those who have played poker for money as it is for gamblers who have never played poker.

“Almost 30% of all gamblers who have played poker fall in the moderate-risk gambling or problem-gambling category,” the researchers said in their study document Australian teens and poker: gambling prevalence, influences and implications.

Why is horse betting dangerous?

Still keen to play the horses at the Melbourne Cup? Then be aware that with betting on horses, in particular, a gambler may easily be misled into believing that an effective winning strategy has been identified, when in fact his luck was due to chance alone.

Matthew Browne of CQ University in Australia posits that there’s “delusion of expertise” involved in this kind of gambling. “Delusions of expertise are likely to be most prevalent in skill-oriented games and in serious, otherwise rational, performance-tracking gamblers. In any game where returns are highly volatile, and there’s a reasonable expectation that skill plays a role, delusions of expertise may come into play,” he notes. This is true for horse betting.

With increasing concern from Government, politicians such as John Kaye are not afraid of launching a full-on assault on the horse-racing industry, and especially against the upcoming Melbourne Cup.

“Many participants in the Melbourne Cup celebrations will be blissfully unaware of the harsh reality that the industry plays a major role in the climbing toll of gambling addiction,” says Kaye on his blog.

“The Melbourne Cup plays a role in perpetuating and normalising the $95 billion that Australians spend each year on gambling,” Kaye argues, adding how a University of Sydney study found that participation rates for race gambling are significantly higher in young people who are more vulnerable to gambling addiction.

How can I stay in control?

Learning to spot the signs of gambling addiction is a starting point for recovery.According to Lifeline Australia, signs of a gambling problem include the following:

    • Thinking about gambling every day • Making excuses to visit casinos and betting stations

    • Spending more money than planned on gambling

    • Feeling guilty after hitting the tracks or the slot machines

    • Lying or stealing to support your habit

    • Getting into debt or struggling financially

Although gambling can be fun for some people, for others it can spell disaster. If you suspect you may be developing a gambling addiction, or if you recognise the risk in someone you love, get help immediately.

Get free, confidential support for gambling addiction from the following groups:




- The Herald Sun 
- USA Today
- Australian teens and poker: gambling prevalence, influences and implications
-  Delusions of Expertise: The High Standard of Proof Needed to Demonstrate Skills at Horserace Handicapping, - Journal of Gambling Studies

Image via Thinkstock.

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