Newshub Nation: Woman reveals harrowing realities of online gambling addiction as Government faces pressure to regulate

Warning: this article discusses suicide.

Online gambling led Sarah down a dark path that resulted in massive debt, stealing from her work, and an attempt on her own life. 

Her experience is not unique, but in the face of increased harm from predatory online gambling vendors, the government is dragging its feet on reforms that could save the livelihoods and lives of vulnerable Kiwis. 

Sarah, whose name has been changed for this story, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars - and nearly her life - after falling victim to unscrupulous and exploitative online gambling companies. 

"One night I won $40,000 and I thought, 'Wow, this is a great deal of money that I've won'. But it's nothing compared to what I've spent," Sarah told Newshub Nation. 

While gambling is a long-standing issue, its impacts have been heightened by the accessibility provided via online mediums. 

"I did it on my iPad all hours of the night, I hardly slept," Sarah said. "You can play right through the night. You can play in the morning hours. You can play whenever you want to."

Apps such as 22Bet, Spin Palace and Bet365 are only ever a click away. 

Director of AUT's Gambling Research Centre Maria Bellringer said online gambling is particularly dangerous because it's constantly accessible. 

"If it's on your phone, you can be doing it almost 24/1 and you can be doing it secretly," Bellringer said.  

"You can be doing it in the bathroom, you can be doing it at work, and people don't realise you're gambling."

According to data from the Ministry of Health, Kiwis seeking help for gambling more than tripled following the arrival of smartphones in 2007. 

The online gambling industry has ballooned to a $100 billion global behemoth in recent years, its rise accelerated by COVID-19 which forced traditional gamblers online.

A paper from Bellringer found "almost one-quarter of online gamblers increased their gambling during lockdown with this most likely to be on overseas gambling sites".

The Problem Gambling Foundation's communications director Andree Froude told Newshub Nation the rise in online gambling is "really concerning". 

"We're seeing more people presenting for help, and we know that's only the tip of the iceberg."

This is because only a small fraction of people with problematic gambling behaviour ever seek help. 

Kiwis with predispositions for gambling abuse are particularly vulnerable to overseas vendors because they are largely unregulated. 

Legal New Zealand operators, TAB and Lotto, are required by law to fund harm-reduction programmes through levies on their profits and implement genuine harm-reduction strategies and self-exclusion protocols but overseas vendors are not.

Without regulation, they can implement insidious measures which deliberately target problem gamblers and exacerbate harmful behaviour.

"Many of them are unscrupulous and predatory. They really are just there to make money irrespective of what happens," Bellringer said. 

Examples include giving bonus bets to users who may have lost numerous bets in a row thereby enticing them to continue, celebrity endorsements, and even making withdrawals from the website unnecessarily complicated while leaving users' balances available to continue gambling with.

Former Blackcap captain Brendon McCullum was in hot water recently for his role as 22Bet brand ambassador.
Former Blackcap captain Brendon McCullum was in hot water recently for his role as 22Bet brand ambassador. Photo credit: 22Bet advertisement

Bellringer said these vendors are purely profit motivated and "they don't care if someone loses all their money, loses their house, maybe even loses their own life over it". 

Sarah fell down a dark hole during her online gambling addiction. 

"It got to such an extent that I started taking out cash loans to fund my gambling habit, and eventually I got in over my head and I couldn't afford to pay these cash loans back," she told Newshub Nation.

"One day a client came and paid cash at my workplace and I decided to take the money, and that was my downfall".

"Eventually I got found out and I proceeded to commit suicide. I was found the next day in a critical condition."

"I had to look at my kids and the pain was etched on their faces. The disappointment was so real and it was heartbreaking."

Tragic stories like Sarah's are not unique and Bellringer warns most harm is unseen because of the "shame and stigma" associated with gambling addiction. 

"Other people can't see why that person can't just stop, and it makes people hide it more. They don't want to tell anyone."

While Government regulation lags, revenue from online gambling in New Zealand is surging and is expected to reach more than half a billion dollars by 2025. 

Business is booming but resources to minimise harm are drying up. 

"There is a levy on the four main types of gambling in New Zealand and of course, offshore online gambling is not included in that," Bellringer said."It essentially means that that levy is not being paid by those offshore operators."

New Zealand's lack of regulation stems from our outdated Gambling Act which was written in 2003 before the internet was so freely available. 

Andree Froude said New Zealand is "absolutely behind the 8 ball". 

"In terms of comparing ourselves to other jurisdictions, we’re like the Wild West. We're seen as a country that these online operators are going to target.”

Countries like Australia, the UK and US have created blacklists of potentially harmful gambling sites, blocking access within their borders.

A review into NZ's online gambling market was launched in 2019 by then Minister for Internal Affairs Tracey Martin.

The review explored options for New Zealand, including forcing international gambling sites to be licenced in New Zealand or risk being blacklisted. 

The review was inherited by Jan Tinetti who said she was committed to change. 

"No harm is acceptable," Tinetti told Live at 8 last year

Tinetti also said the review was under active consideration and it was expected Cabinet would consider proposals by the end of 2022.

After a Cabinet reshuffle and Barbara Edmond's appointment to Minister of Internal Affairs, progress remains stalled. 

Newshub Nation asked Barbara Edmonds when the review will be actioned. 

She said "The Government takes online gambling seriously. A review of online gambling commenced in 2019 and work continues on this issue through a broader review of the Gambling Act 2003.

"It is clear that further work is needed to ensure the Gambling Act 2003 is still fit for purpose in today’s increasingly digital world.

"Officials are continuing to scope a review of the Act."

She also referenced a package of measures announced in November last year which strengthen requirements for pokie machine operators. 

The government's work on online gambling didn't help Sarah, who only hopes her story can help others struggling with online gambling. 

"I can never take that back and I can never make it right, so if I could change that for one person, all this pain and heartache would be worth it," she said. 

"Don't turn out like me, don't do what I've done."

While online gambling led her down a dark path, her story shows there is still life after loss. 

"I thought that my life was over, but I've got a great job and I'm studying, so things are really looking up for me and I'm able to give back to the community."

"So I'm paying my dues," she said. 

Watch the full video for more. 

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