There are plenty of reasons to feel good about being Australian. Whether it's education, health, or household wealth, Australia ranks consistently high on the global liveability metrics. But one international leaderboard that Australia uncomfortably sits at the top of is gambling losses per capita. Australians are voracious gamblers, losing more on the punt than any other country in the world, with some pretty astonishing numbers.

Gambling in Australia statistics – how much do we lose?

The latest statistics published by the Queensland Treasury in the 38th edition of Australian Gambling Statistics (regarded as the authoritative source of gambling statistics in Australia) show that, in total, Australians bet close to $198 billion in 2020/2021. That sounds bad, but it's actually a relative improvement: from 2015 to 2019, annual gambling losses consistently exceeded $200 billion, peaking at $232.8 billion in 2018/19. The optimistic take is that this is because of campaigns to educate the public and help problem gamblers. However, the only categories of gambling that decreased in 2020/21 compared to 2018/19 were wagering, casino gambling and gaming machines. These happen to also be the categories that would have been impacted by the Covid lockdowns throughout 2020/2021, so it's difficult to conclude Aussie gamblers wised up during the pandemic. The 39th edition, which should be released towards the end of 2024 if the past schedule is anything to go by, will measure 2021/2022, so should provide a more accurate reading. Until then, the 2018/19 data set is probably a more accurate representation to use for the purposes of this article.

So, about $233 billion spent on gambling in one year. That's more than the Federal Government spent on both social security and defence over the same period. As of 2024, it's also more than the estimated GDP of Hungary, Ethiopia or Morocco.

Averaged out across all 19.75 million Australians aged over 18 (based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data), this works out to be $11,787 per capita.

Of the various forms of gambling in the 2018-19 period:

  • $26.9 billion was spent on racing ($1,377 per capita)
  • $187.6 billion was spent on gaming, like casinos and the pokies ($9,581 per capita)
  • $11.1 billion on sports betting ($567 per capita) 

That's the total amount spent: not every dollar spent on gambling is lost - that's the whole risk-reward appeal. The same report tallied our national gambling expenditure (total gambling winnings subtracted from total turnover) at $26.3 billion. Per adult that's about $1,331 lost to gambling every year.

We can further break these losses down into:

  • $3.5 billion on racing ($179 per person)
  • $20.5 billion on gaming ($1,048 per person)
  • $961 million on sports betting ($49 per person)

So the average person over 18 in this country is losing $1,331 per year on gambling. That's money that could be going towards loan repayments, mortgages, credit card bills, savings accounts or investments. Bear in mind as well that this average is based on every single adult in Australia. In reality, a proportion of the population does not gamble at all. The most recent estimate of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) is that about 73% of Australian adults spend money on gambling activities in a typical year. Using this figure, we can estimate that the average gambler lost about $1,775 in 2019, but even this figure includes people who only gamble a couple of times a year. It's not unreasonable to infer from this data that there is a substantial number of Australians who lose tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

Alliance for Gambling Reform Chief Advocate, Rev Tim Costello said the impacts of these disturbingly high losses could no longer be tolerated. 

“Gambling harm encompasses everything from the loss of homes and relationships to the loss of lives through deaths by suicide associated with gambling harm,” Rev Costello said in December 2019.

“There are direct connections in some instances between gambling harm and family violence and mental ill-health.

“When you consider for every person directly experiencing gambling harm it is estimated at least six more people connected to those people experience some impact, we are talking about an issue that affects an extraordinary number of Australians.”

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    The social cost of gambling

    In November 2017, the Victorian Problem Gambling Foundation found that there is more than just a personal cost to gambling in Australia. This research found that in 2014-15, the cost of problem gambling in Australia totalled $7 billion:

    • $2.2 billion – family and relationship problems
    • $1.6 billion – emotional and psychological issues, including distress, depression, suicide and violence
    • $1.3 billion – financial losses
    • $1.1 billion – costs to the Victorian government, such as research, regulation, and professional support services
    • $600 million – lost productivity and other work-related costs
    • $100 million – costs of crime

    And that’s just the state of Victoria – the total cost country-wide will be much more. So gambling can cost people through addictive habits, emotional and mental problems, lost productivity at work, crime and the breakdown of relationships. And when you consider that the government rakes in roughly $6 billion a year in tax revenue from gambling, it appears that it's having a net-negative effect on society at the moment.

    In a 2023 AIFS research paper titled Gambling participation and experience of harm in Australia, survey results suggested a majority of Australians had concerns about the availability of gambling and the impact it was having on the wider community.

    • 77% of respondents believed there are 'too many opportunities for gambling nowadays'
    • 68% felt gambling is 'dangerous for family life'
    • 59% say it 'should be discouraged'

    Other key statistics

    Here are a few other key gambling statistics from the most recent Australian Institute of Family Studies figures from 2018.

    • There were 6.5 million regular gamblers in Australia - 35% of the population
    • Participation in lotteries was most common, with 27% of Australian adults spending money on lottery tickets in 2018.
    • The next most common were pokies (7.4%) and scratch tickets (6.3%).
    • In a typical month in 2018, 39.6% of men and 31% of women gambled.
    • Gamblers generally spent around half their overall gambling outlay on a single product
    • Mean expenditure was lower among gamblers who had a university degree and lived in a house with children
    • 1.33 million Australian adults had experienced one or more gambling-related problems in 2018
    • Gamblers living in low-income households spent, on average, a much greater proportion of their household’s total disposable income on gambling than high-income households (10% for those earning below $38,000 versus 1% for those earning above $132,000.
    • Problem gamblers in low-income households spent the greatest proportion (27%)—equivalent to four times the average yearly household utility bills.
    • In 2023, survey findings suggest around 73% of Australian adults gambled at least once in the past 12 months, with 38% gambling at least weekly

    Another fun fact: NSW pokie machines made $6.5 billion in profit in 2019 - that's roughly the GDP of the entire country of Fiji. 

    How do Australian gamblers compare to other populations?

    Places like Vegas in America might be synonymous with gambling, but the United States are nowhere near us in terms of gambling losses per person. Australia is by far the gambling capital of the world when it comes to gambling losses per capita. According to a 2017 study by H2 Gambling Capital, gambling losses per capita in Australia were $US958 that year. In second was Hong Kong at $768 per capita – the United States was ninth with $421 lost per capita.

    Given the ease-of-access and normalisation of gambling in Australia, a wise punter wouldn’t put money on us losing ‘top-spot’ any time soon…

    Why do we bet so much?

    The pokies

    “Australia has always embraced gambling … Having always been a culture where risk and reward reigns supreme.”

    – onlinecasinos.com.au

    Gambling is commonplace in Australian culture and it's almost impossible to not be exposed to it, especially when watching TV or sport.

    Despite the rise of online betting applications though, pokies continue to reign supreme.

    The biggest chunk ($12.7 billion) of Australia's gambling losses in 2018-19 were on the pokies, called slot machines in the US and fruit machines in the UK. Australia has 20% of all of them worldwide. Why? Because we're one of few countries that permits these machines outside of casinos - frequenting pubs, bars, and even sporting clubs, with the exception of Western Australia.

    In 2017, the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that there were more than 200,000 active pokie machines in Australia, with over 95,000 of them in NSW. You can walk into pretty much any pub or sporting club, plonk yourself down at a machine and start pressing that magic button. In Victoria, 90% of AFL teams operate their own pokies. They're easy to access, easy to use and ubiquitous.

    There are regulations on pokies in Australia - you can't place a single bet of more than $5, for example, and NSW have put a 20% cap on new pokie machines in problem gambling areas - but they appear to have little impact. In September 2023, signs that say "VIP lounge", "Dragons Den" or other similar names that allude to gambling were also banned in NSW.

    These machines also have mandatory return to player ratios: at least 85% in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory, 87% in the ACT and 87.5% in South Australia. That means that over the life of the game in South Australia (often several years) it must return at least 87.5% of the wagered amounts back to the players, so a maximum of 12.5% of the turnover is retained by the gambling venues. This doesn't mean that you will get a win 87.5% of the time though. It's a figure aggregated across the entire life of a single machine. If say $1 million is put through a machine over a couple of years, by law, it needs to pay out at least $875,000 in winnings.

    Pokies are “really good at getting people hooked: Each (bet) provides a dopamine release, similar to a drug like cocaine, in your brain. They target people who are often under stress, offer a euphoric sensation, then take all their money off them.”

    – Charles Livingstone, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Monash University

    In essence, each bet on the pokies makes you feel good. And when you combine this with the sheer multitude of the things around, it’s no wonder we use them so much.

    pokies machines

    Look at all the pretty colours. Source: Unsplash.

    Sports Betting

    “Online sports betting, particularly with young men, is growing exponentially, it’s become normalised, it’s all over television.”

    – Fiona Guthrie, Financially Counselling Australia CEO to News Corp

    Online betting apps make placing a bet on a sports game ridiculously easy, and these companies are now offering ever more eclectic markets.

    Punters on Sportsbet, the largest online betting company in Australia, can bet on things like the winner of Triple J's hottest 100, the next leader of the Liberal party, even which character will have the first line of dialogue in the next season of Stranger Things.

    Advertising for online sports betting is an increasingly controversial issue, with many calling for stricter restrictions on advertisements during televised games or even an outright ban. Currently in Australia, in play advertisements during games are not permitted, any representative of a gambling organisation needs to be clearly identified and not a part of any commentary team, and any program principally directed at children between 5am and 8.30pm cannot have gambling advertisements.

    Platforms like Youtube are exempt from these rules though, so anyone in their target demographic (such as young males or people who've placed a bet before) are incredibly likely to see an ad from a betting company. Banner ads online are everywhere, and those who link their mobile number to betting accounts (which is often required) receive text messages about upcoming games or deals unless they respond saying 'STOP'. 

    The way gambling advertising dominates professional sports is a growing concern for Australians. AIFS paper Community attitudes towards sports and race betting advertising in Australia had the following findings:

    • 69% of Australian adults believe sports and race betting advertising is too common
    • 62% say it encourages 'engaging in risky gambling'.
    • 53% say it normalises gambling among children.

    The survey found significant support for extended restrictions on gambling advertisements.

    Australian support for gambling bans.JPG

    Anyone with a smartphone or laptop can open their betting app and place a punt on the game they’re watching, or one that’s taking place halfway around the world, which is a cause for concern for many high-profile people. Speaking to the ABC, Dr Chris Hunt, a clinical psychologist at the University of Sydney’s Gambling Treatment and Research Centre, said: “It’s been such an ingrained part of Australian culture for such a long time. I think we should be concerned about the availability of betting and the promotion of betting in sport.”

    A typical day on the punt

    The most recent Australian Institute of Family Studies information suggests 48% of men gamble weekly, compared to 28% of women. Survey results based on sampling of respondents organised by gambling products used estimated a mean and median expenditure for these people in a single session.

    Gambling product
    Mean expenditure (Median) AUD

    Overall Men Women
    Sports betting $83 ($20) $98 ($25) $53 ($20)
    Racing $93 ($20) $112 ($30) $63 ($20)
    All other gambling (Pokies, casino, lotteries etc.) $109 ($30) $119 ($30) $92 ($30)
    All gambling $95 ($23.33) $109.67 ($28.33) $63 ($25.33)

    The difference between the mean and median results here is notable, likely due to the higher percentile heavy gamblers, who would be spending amounts far above the norm, distorting the mean.

    How gambling affects your savings

    If you're anything like the average Australian, gambling doesn't affect your savings in a good way. We've written previously about how much the average Australian saves each week. As of September 2019, the average household saved 4.8% of their disposable income, of which the average at the same time was about $1,100 per week. This works out at around $53 per week, or $2,746 a year. The average gambling losses of $1,277 per person reduce this yearly savings amount to just over $1,468. This equates to billions of lost savings for Australians every year. And obviously, there are many problem gamblers who would be losing tens of thousands of dollars every year, far eclipsing their savings. 

    Even if you don't have a problem with gambling, the small amounts here and there can really add up over time, especially if you don't make any returns. According to a 2012 study by the government of South Australia, 93% of non-problem gamblers bet less than $50 at any one time, but even a few of these bets can equal hundreds of dollars. 

    Resources for gambling help

    Problem gambling is generally defined as:

    When betting starts to create trouble in your life, such as debt; relationship problems; loss of a job; stress or depression etc.

    If you continue to gamble despite negative consequences, or if you know you need to stop, but can’t, then you might be a problem gambler. If you’re reading this and think you might have a problem with gambling, there are numerous resources you can reach out to for help:

    To help get your finances back in order after gambling issues, you can also speak to an ASIC approved financial counsellor.

    Savings.com.au’s two cents

    Everyone thinks gamblers are idiotic until they give it a go themselves. Betting - whether it's on a roulette table, a horse, or your favourite sports team - can be a lot of fun and there are undeniably plenty of people who have a completely healthy relationship with the punt. If you buy a scratchie every once in a while and get involved in your office sweepstake each year when the Melbourne Cup comes around, you probably don't have anything to worry about.

    If you're putting up gambling numbers that are anywhere close to the national average though, you might want to have a good think about your habits. Try tracking every bet you place or every note you put into the pokies, just as you would with everything else you budget. While each $20 you bet might seem harmless, you might be surprised to see how quickly these numbers can add up.

    If you do think you have a problem with gambling, then don't hesitate to contact the support services listed above.

    This article was originally published by William Jolly in December 2018.

    Picture by Matthew Schwartz on Unsplash