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New Zealand problem gambling report released

13 July 2007

NEW ZEALAND -- (PRESS RELEASE) -- AUT University Professor Max Abbott said today that the recently released Ministry of Health report 'Problem Gambling Intervention Services in New Zealand: 2006 Service-User Statistics' contains some incredible information that is very good news for the health sector.

Professor Abbott said that last year the Ministry reported that following a decade of strong growth in help seeking for gambling problems, numbers fell dramatically. In 2005 new gambling helpline callers reduced by a third; new counselling clients by a fifth.

"Change of this magnitude is unprecedented in the addictions, mental health or general health area. For numbers to drop like this, something dramatic must be happening. Given that services are being expanded and actively promoted, it appears likely that the fall in help-seeking represents a reduction in gambling-related problems in the community."

Professor Abbott said the important thing about the latest (2006) figures is that they indicate the 2005 reductions have been sustained and are not a temporary blip or aberration in an ongoing trend.

"If this dramatic reduction was in any other area of health care, for example people seeking treatment for winter flu, car crash injuries or hip surgery for degenerative diseases, there would be fanfare and jubilation."

According to Professor Abbott the most likely explanation for the reduction in help seeking is the introduction of the Smokefree Environments Act 2004, supported by some measures in the Gambling Act 2003.

Professor Abbott said the great majority of problem gamblers report problems with non-casino gaming machines (pokies) and that most problem gamblers are heavy smokers. The Smokefree Environments Act puts problem and at-risk gamblers' addictions in conflict – they must choose between smoking and gambling.

He said that while also applying to casino gaming machines, casino operators appear to have found ways around the 'addiction conflict'. "Non-casino operators have also recently won an appeal to the Gambling Commission that will allow machines to be located in areas that are technically 'out doors' where smoking is allowed." "It remains to be seen how widely this will be adopted and what effect it will have."

Although the latest figures show that nearly two-thirds of new clients report that non-casino gaming machines are their primary mode of harmful gambling, this figure has dropped in the past two years while casino-based machine problems have increased. This is also reflected in reduced national non-casino gaming machine expenditure.

According to Professor Abbott it is something of an irony that the Smokefree legislation appears to have had a much greater impact on another addiction (problem gambling) than on tobacco use per se.

He said that until a national problem gambling prevalence study has been conducted, it will be unclear to what extent reduced help seeking is indicative of a real change in problem gambling in the community. The last national survey was undertaken in 1999.

Longer term, he said, the challenge is to reduce problem levels further. This requires research to clarify what is driving the reduction in service use. He said there is also a need to do more to overcome barriers to seeking help. "Most people who need help for gambling problems do not seek or obtain it, and this is especially so for some high risk groups."

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