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New Zealand Study Challenges Problem Gambling Views

20 September 2004

NEW ZEALAND – (PRESS RELEASE) -- New Zealand research published in the latest edition of the international journal 'Substance Use and Misuse' challenges current views on problem gambling and suggests a more positive outlook for people suffering from this disorder. The findings call for a different approach to policies and services to assist problem gamblers. The findings also suggest previous gambling surveys have greatly underestimated the number of people with problems.

Professor Max Abbott and colleagues at Auckland University of Technology's (AUT) Gambling Research Centre conducted the study that followed 77 problem and 66 regular non-problem gamblers over a 7-year period. Participants were recruited from a national survey of New Zealand adults. This is the first study in the world to follow a community sample of problem gamblers, prospectively, over time.

"The bad news from our research is that there are probably many more people throughout the world who have experienced gambling problems than was previously thought, perhaps twice as many. The good news is that for most of them their problems don't last as long as clinicians and researchers generally believe," said Professor Abbott.

According to Professor Abbott problem gambling, once a rare mental disorder, has become widespread in countries where access to gambling and expenditure have expanded. He said 1-2% of New Zealand adults currently experience gambling problems with about 2 to 3 times that number having had problems at some time in their lives.

"Governments world-wide are taking problem gambling seriously because, in addition to the rising number of sufferers, many other people's lives are damaged and the total social and economic costs might out-weigh benefits from increased gambling expenditure."

Professor Abbott said serious problem gambling (pathological gambling) is defined as a chronic or chronically relapsing mental disorder and treatment approaches focus on total abstinence from gambling.

In contrast to official psychiatric diagnostic criteria, the AUT research found the majority of problem gamblers no longer reported problems when re-assessed 7 years later, despite none having received treatment. Contrary to the view that problem gamblers cannot return to moderate or social gambling, most people who overcame their problems reported that they still gambled weekly or more.

"For many clinicians these findings are heresy," said Professor Abbott. "However, this is similar to what happened in the alcohol field when people with alcohol problems were located in the community and followed over time. The picture that emerged was quite different to that obtained from patients' retrospective accounts."

Professor Abbott said the study did find people with particularly serious problems at the outset were more likely to continue to have problems 7 years later, especially if they also had problems with alcohol.

Problem gamblers who preferred betting on horses and dogs also had a much worse outcome than those who preferred Lotto, gaming machines or other forms of gambling.

While most problem gamblers, especially those with less serious problems, overcame their problems, some got worse over time and others switched from gambling to alcohol problems.

The study also found that many people who had reported gambling problems 7 years earlier no longer remembered that they had had problems at that time. Because many previous problem gambling surveys assessed the prevalence of problems by asking about past problems, it is likely that they significantly under-estimate how many people have had problems during their lifetimes.

Professor Abbott said the findings indicate most people who develop gambling problems overcome them without professional help. However he cautioned that a great deal of damage, including suicide, can occur before this point is reached and much more needs to be done at an early stage to prevent problem escalation. The findings provide hope that prevention messages and other public health approaches targeted to high-risk groups can be effective.

He said a broader range of treatments, including interventions focussed on social or controlled gambling outcomes, is required. Given the high over-lap between gambling and alcohol problems, he suggested it would probably make sense to co-locate or integrate gambling and substance misuse programmes

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