The ACT government should have done more to limit gambling harm once gaming venues reopened after the lockdown, with support staff active in pubs and clubs to identify people at risk, an ACT Labor backbencher said.
Dr Marisa Paterson said she was disappointed there was no specific program to mitigate harm once gaming venues reopened, because there was evidence to suggest an increase in gambling activity after shutdowns could put more people at risk.
"I just feel that we're not taking seriously enough the impact of COVID and the lockdown," Dr Paterson said.
Dr Paterson, who was the head of the Australian National University's centre for gambling research before she was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a member for Murrumbidgee, said people in stressful times, when they were under pressure and economic stress or felt depressed anxious, were at risk of increased gambling harm.
"And so all of those things have been occurring in our community over the last few months, so we need to be considering the fact that a lot of people might be experiencing that harm over the next few months," she said.
Gaming Minister Shane Rattenbury told an ACT budget estimates hearing on Thursday there had been no specific work to minimise gambling harm as a result of the restrictions easing.
Responding to a question from Dr Paterson, Mr Rattenbury said there was natural rationing of access to poker machines because of public health measures that limited the capacity of venues.
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But Mr Rattenbury also said there had been some preliminary data to show increased takings on poker machines in the ACT since lockdown had lifted, and online gambling had increased during the shutdown period.
"The bottom line is poker machines are deliberately addictive. They are designed to hook people in and to extract, in some cases, frankly more money than people can afford, which is why we have a long-term reform program of harm minimisation in the territory," he said.
Dr Paterson said in the estimates hearing the government would have been more proactive if the shutdown period had affected access to alcohol.
"If for example, over a lockdown period, people were not allowed to buy alcohol, and then we got to a point where pubs and clubs and bottle shops opened - if that was the case, we'd have significant risk-mitigation processes. We'd have extra police around, we would be recognising it as a community, that there is potential for substantial harm from alcohol as a result of reopening," she said.
Speaking later to The Canberra Times, Dr Paterson said there should be a sustained campaign in the ACT to ensure there was no extra gambling harm or an increase in harm.
"You would have, for example, Access Canberra teams out in clubs, you'd have clubs actually embracing as an issue and going, 'No, we don't want to see harm in our communities, we want to see the community come back to us in a healthy way'," she said.
"And I think really there should be a very active agenda to ensure that people in the venues over the next few months are not experiencing heightened levels of harm. Things like self-exclusion, ensuring that people know about self-exclusion, ensuring that people know that they can access health services."
The ACT government established an advisory council in May to assist in efforts to reduce gambling harm in the territory.
The council will work to reduce gaming machine licences to 3500, introduce $5 bet limits and $100 load-up limits for gaming machines, while enhancing the self-exclusion scheme.
Comprised of community club representatives, harm reduction organisations, and union stakeholders, the council is chaired by Mr Rattenbury.
Mr Rattenbury on Thursday said he was unaware the ACT government directly held shares in large gambling companies, including the New York-based owner of Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas strip.
The gaming minister said the government-owned shareholdings had "escaped his attention" but he would raise the issue with Treasurer Andrew Barr.
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