USyd’s ties to the Australian gambling industry

The University of Sydney Gambling Research and Treatment Clinic has received more than $2.5 million from gambling industry groups

This article was published in the 2019 Semester 2, Week 1 edition of Honi Soit.

Australians lose more while gambling than any other country: we lose more than $24 billion each year, approximately the GDP of Nepal. Per capita, we lose $1,200 each year. And gambling technology is only getting better at making us want to lose: the proliferation of randomised electronic race betting has meant that you don’t need to wait for more than 2 minutes to place a bet on the next virtual horse or greyhound race; whereas many jurisdictions have banned special prize rounds on pokies, they can be found on every machine in Australia. By comparison, we have laxer gambling regulations than in the US, where pokies are restricted and most forms of online gambling are prohibited. 

Gambling shapes our lives and our cities. There are 10 different places within a 10 minute walking distance from the University of Sydney where you can play pokies.

That fact cannot be separated from the reality  that the gambling industry carries outsized importance within Australian politics. A recent proposal for a federal parliamentary inquiry into Crown Casinos was met with bipartisan opposition. In Tasmania, 90% of the Liberal Party’s declared funds at its most recent state election came from pro-gambling lobby groups, a response to a promise by Labor to phase out pokie machines. In the ACT, Labor Party operated clubs see a $24 million annual return on pokies.

But in no state does gambling dominate the way in which it does in NSW. The most recent state election saw Labor run on a platform to “support clubs,” whilst the Coalition has signed a Memorandum Of Understanding with Clubs NSW containing key election promises prior to each of the previous three state elections (2010, 2014, 2018). We’ve let Racing NSW  advertise on our Opera House, excluded Crown Casinos from lock out law zones, and allowed Packer to shape the Barangaroo shore front.

It’s not only that the political parties are tied to the gambling industry, but also that state governments have a clear incentive to retain gambling as a key tax base. The 2018 MOU between the Coalition and Clubs NSW notes, for example, that clubs are projected to add $3.4 billion to the state economy over the next four years.

Gambling is big business, and vested interests have a lot to lose. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that industry bodies have taken particular interest in funding research.

Critics of gambling industry funding and its involvement in research argue that even with strict disclosure requirements and codes of ethics, investment shapes research agendas. Specifically, gambling industries and the governments that support them have an incentive to construe gambling that is enjoyed responsibly by most, with a small minority “problem gamblers.” State government conducted problem gambling prevalence studies use narrow, pathological, definitions of problem gambling. Tellingly, such findings feature prominently in industry publications. The first substantive page of the Clubs NSW Responsible Gambling Strategy 2019-21 states, for example, that the “prevalence of problem gamblers…identified in this NSW study (0.4%) is lower than the all of the other jurisdictions.”

That framing obscures the fact that much of the harm is borne by “non-problem gamblers.” A 2017 study, for example, finds that 85% of years of life lost due to gambling come from persons at a “low” or “moderate” risk of problem gambling. Moreover, it ignores the fact that though a small minority of gamblers are defined as “problem gamblers” much larger proportions of gamblers experience some form of gambling related problem. A 2014 prevalence study by the ANU Centre for Gambling Research found that, in the ACT, “low-risk gamblers are spending five times as much, on average, as gamblers who consider themselves problem-free.” 

As Sean Cowlishaw and Samantha Thomas from the University of Deakin argue, that is analogous to the way in which “the alcohol industry has argued that alcohol harms are limited to a minority of ‘problem drinkers’, and thus opposed population-wide policies that threaten financial interests”.

Problematically, gambling research has not always made its industry connections clear. In 2014, Professor Rebecca Cassidy (University of London) criticised the International Journal for Gambling Studies (of which USyd’s Alex Blaszczynski was and remains the Editor in Chief) for its failure to require disclosures of conflicts of interest in line with the Committee on Publication Ethics. The journal’s embrace of industry support in its disclosure requirements were criticised, them staring at the time: “The Editor(s) accept that such support is often essential to enable research to occur.” In her criticism, Cassidy specifically criticised an article co-authored by Sally Gainsbury, the Deputy Director of the Sydney University Gambling Centre and editor of journal, for its failure to disclose conflicts of interest. 

Blaszczynski and Gainsbury have since tightened the journal’s disclosure requirements. 

If gambling industry funding shapes research outcomes, however, it’s unclear whether government funding is any better. Where governments rely on gambling as key tax bases (not to mention where political parties are wedded to industry), they have a similar incentive to promote a narrative that most gambling is harmless and that problem gambling is limited to a very small minority. Government embrace of this specific “responsible gambling” framework is obvious. 

Further difficulties arise with the characteristics gambling research itself. Unlike other much established addiction research — such as with cigarette smoking or alcohol —  one cannot measure the effects of pokies anywhere except in a pub or club. As Blaszczynski puts it, “industry-supported research is required if valid conclusions can be drawn from studies involving real gamblers risking their own money in real venues”. Particularly when researching new forms of gambling technologies that have not yet made it to market, researchers must rely on industry to access gamblers and gambling technology.

These criticisms have not always been met with open arms. A recent piece by James Boyce on the relationship between gambling industry investments and problem gambling research, published in The Monthly, was met with complaints of inaccuracy. (Boyce and The Monthly were unable to comment to Honi as to the identity of the organisation making the complaint or its substance.) Honi has also been told that a similar piece written for a state authority was removed after similar complaints, but has been unable to confirm this at the time of publication.

Director of the USyd Research and Treatment Gambling Clinic, Dr Alex Blaszczynski, argues that allegations of industry influence are “ad hominem” attacks reminiscent of “McCarthy-era communist witchhunts.” Since 2016 the Centre has received almost $2.5 million in funding from Clubs NSW, the Gaming Technologies Association and Aristocrat Technologies Australia (the company which introduced to Australia poker machines, or as founder Len Ainsworth, termed them, the “mouse trap”). That is, in addition to funding received from Aristocrat Leisure Industries, Responsible Wagering Australia the “peak body representing the Australian online wagering industry” and a yet unfulfilled grant of $186,204 from Clubs NSW.

Accepting such funding by no means make the University of Sydney an outlier: most respected gambling researchers have received industry funding at some point in their careers. Such researchers argue that there is no impact on research outcomes. In correspondence with Honi, Blaszczynski points to a 2019 meta-study of existing gambling research that he co-authored, which finds there to be no difference in research produced with gambling industry funding. Importantly however, that study does not engage with the key criticism made of industry funding: that it shapes the research agenda, pushing researchers to focus disproportionately on pathological cases of problem gambling. The study compares studies on the basis of research design variables and whether the hypothesis is proven correct.

Blaszczynski and a University spokesperson also make clear that all research conducted by the USyd is bound by strict codes of conduct to ensure conflicts of interests do not affect research outcomes. Blaszczynski argues that industry retains a “hands-off approach” to avoid “allegations of influence.” Where the Centre undertakes a research agreement with industry for example, “it is made clear that the industry does not have any input into the design and methodology of the study, the data is retained by USyd, and there is no requirement to provide manuscripts for approval before submission to peer-reviewed journals,” whereas government contracts require such approval.

It’s difficult to believe, however, that industry groups would continue to fund research if it harmed their bottom line. Strict codes of conduct might mean that the findings of research conducted by the Gambling Clinic are not influenced by industry funding. But the influence of industry may shape what questions are asked and how. In a nascent area of research like gambling studies, that can shape research priorities for decades to come. 

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