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Problem gamblers in South Africa are on the decrease, but researchers warn that's no reason for complacency.
In the past two years, study findings by the National Centre for the Study of Gambling show, the number of adults classified as problem gamblers dropped from nearly seven percent to just less than five percent.
The biennial research is conducted on behalf of the National Responsible Gambling Programme, and for the latest data surveyed 3 003 adults in the main urban areas, with easy access to commercial gambling.
A total of 4,8 percent of adult South Africans can be considered problem gamblers, and a little less than 1 percent pathological or compulsive gamblers, says the programme's executive director Professor Peter Collins.
The results offered "some measure of relief" when taken against the high levels of anxiety around the negative consequences of gambling in South Africa.
Significantly, he said, the study results were consistent with the findings of the recently-published National Gambling Board research, undertaken by the Bureau of Market Research at the University of South Africa, which also showed the prevalence of problem gambling here had declined between 2003 and last year.
"But this doesn't constitute grounds for complacency since problem gambling is a condition that develops over a period of time.
"What is clear, though, is that South Africans today are better educated about gambling, and our public awareness initiatives have obviously met with some success," Collins said.
He said the local data confirmed the results of recent research in the United States and New Zealand, which compared problem gambling rates before and after the introduction of casinos.
"It was found that in Montana and North Dakota, for example, the incidence of problem gambling increased. In Oregon, and in New Zealand, they declined.
"The critical variable was whether or not the introduction of new forms of gambling was accompanied by the provision of services for problem gamblers, especially public education about gambling and its potential dangers, along with accessible treatment," Collins said.
South Africa, like New Zealand, and Oregon in the US, has an extensive programme for raising public awareness of the risks inherent in gambling.
The South African research team, led by Collins and Prof Graham Barr of the University of Cape Town, focused on estimating the number of pathological or addictive gamblers in need of professional help as well as the number who were simply gambling too much, either out of ignorance or poor life management skills.
"Our study reveals that 144 of the 3 003 respondents answered seven or more of the 20 Gamblers' Anonymous questions affirmatively, which is noticeably less than the number in our 2003 survey," Collins said, adding that this indicated that 4,8 percent were gambling "too much".
The figure was 6,8 percent in 2003.
"The research also suggests that somewhat less than 1 percent of this sample have an addiction to gambling which is similar to alcoholism and drug addiction," he said.
In terms of participation in gambling, the research findings showed:
Some forms of gambling showed a slight decline compared with 2003, including slot machines, newspaper jackpots and scratch cards.
Those who only play the lottery grew from 41 percent in 2003 to 53 percent last year, while those who never gamble declined from 20 percent in 2003 to 15 percent last year.
Research into gambling spend was also conducted, which confirmed that people from all income groups play the lottery regularly.
Of those in the lowest income groups (disposable incomes less than R1 400 per month) who gamble regularly, more than 70 percent regularly play the lottery, but less than three percent play slots regularly, and about seven percent bet regularly on horses.
The study found that although a large number of people played the lottery, expenditure was far outweighed by expenditure on slots.
"Those who play the lottery spend on average just over R81 a month, with the lottery accounting for 26 percent of total gambling spend in South Africa. Those who play slots spend R541 per month on average, and slots constitute 44 percent of all gambling expenditure in the country," the report said.
Conversely, Collins pointed out, the minority of poor people who play slot machines and horses, spend a high proportion of their income doing so, and spend modestly on the lottery.
He said the findings showed that South Africa's gambling market had matured "to an equilibrium incidence" of problem gambling of 4 percent.
Most South Africans, including most poor people, gambled sensibly.
"The decrease over the past two years in the number of people who exhibit problems with their gambling is attributable largely to steps which have been taken to address the question of problem gambling, especially public awareness and the provision of treatment services, and efficacy of those measures."