As a 16 year old, Marcus Bohman thought his occasional small bets on the horses were harmless. His gambling continued into his early 20s and when online betting arrived, things got out of control.
"I began betting having a beer out on a Saturday afternoon," says Bohman, now 40. "When I discovered online gambling my bets got bigger, first it was $10, then $20, until it snowballed."
Access to gambling 24/7 fuelled his habit and it turned secretive. "I was gambling in the comfort of my home, nobody knew. I had access to worldwide events. There was always something to bet on - from UK Greyhound racing to worldwide soccer matches throughout the night."
By the time he hit rock bottom more than a decade later, he'd lost more than $300,000.
Stories like Bohman's are becoming more common. Figures from Australian Gambling Statistics suggest sports betting has increased by 30 per cent between 2013 and 2015, making this the fastest-growing gambling product in Australia.
Bohman, a Sydneysider who works in financial services, eventually found he could no longer pay his gambling debts on his credit cards and personal loans, which he used exclusively for gambling.
"I had as many as seven gambling accounts across different providers with multiple credit cards," he says. "I was married with children; financially this was crippling."
A supportive family and help services were his saving grace. He reached out to Gamblers Anonymous and a psychologist, and this helped him realise he'd never be a "healthy gambler".
"I had too much to lose, not just financially," he says. "I became someone I didn't like, I was lying to myself and others and I don't want to return to that place again."
Bohman has not gambled for more than three years.
Dr Sophie Vasiliadis???, a gambling researcher at Deakin University, says more people are being exposed to sports gambling through advertising and sponsorship.
"Our research shows that children aged eight to 16 consider gambling ads and sponsorship a normal part of the sport," Vasiliadis says.
"A growing number to teen boys are initiated into gambling putting them at a higher risk of developing problems later, such as combining excessive drinking with sports betting."
About three children in every classroom will develop serious gambling problems in secondary school, she says.
The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation has been working with sports clubs in an effort to drop sports sponsorship. "Hundreds of local sports clubs have signed up to the foundation's responsible gambling charter, yet half of the big AFL clubs are still dragging their feet."
The 2017 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey suggests monthly sports betting is as dangerous as the pokies or wagering. About one in 20 monthly sports betters are problem gamblers, almost half experience some level of harm.
"If nothing is done, then we will increasingly see sports betting among young children and adults normalised in this country and problem gambling on the rise," Vasiliadis says.
Kate Roberts, executive officer at Gambling Impact Society, says social marketing has played an integral part in exposing young people to gambling.
"Take a look at the footy tipping; kids are being bombarded with gambling through advertising, radio and throughout the game," Roberts says. "We are seeing an increasing number of young people turning up with gambling problems."
Parents have raised concerns and there is some government legislation but progress is slow.
"We are becoming saturated with gaming and sports betting and not enough is being done," says Roberts. "It's very easy for overseas gaming companies to enter the homes and devices, such as iPads and mobile phones, of young Australians.
"Sports betting advertising is very aggressive. Kids are exposed to this via family footy games; in effect they're grooming children at a young age to take an interest in gambling."
Roberts says people do not have enough information on how the product works.
"They are enticed to gamble with incentives and available credit. It's easy for youngsters to set up accounts without checks and balances satisfying the legal requirement. Proof of age is not sufficient to protect them."
She argues the solution is for sport to sever the relationship with gambling as it has done with tobacco and advertising. "In terms of consumer protection, the same must be done for sports and betting companies," Roberts says.
For its part, the sports betting industry says it is working on the problem. Responsible Wagering Australia (RWA), which represents the likes of Betfair, Sportsbet, CrownBet and Ladbrokes, has been working with all levels of governments to develop standards for the industry.
"We have publicly called for a ban on credit betting, sign-up offers and a significant reduction in the volume of wagering advertising during live sport," says Stephen Conroy, the former Labor minister and now RWA executive director. "These measures have now been adopted by government and will significantly bolster protections for at-risk individuals."
The National Consumer Protection Framework, to be finalised this year, will include a register to allow people to exclude themselves from all online gambling sites and apps through one simple online process and add protection to ensure people can withdraw winnings from a bonus bet.
While Bohman accepts responsibility for his gambling, he also calls for systemic changes to reduce harm.
He believes banks have a lot of power, since most people who gamble online are using credit. "Banks have a social responsibility but they don't do enough to stop people gambling excessively with money they don't have."
Bohman also points to the way sports betting companies seduce new customers, and the "frightening" normalisation of gambling through affiliation with the NRL and AFL.
"It's very easy to be lured into opening accounts, many companies use first deposit bonus bets to entice gamblers, such as you deposit $500, you receive an additional $500 in bonus bets," Bohman says.
"It's taken a big toll on me and I fear for the next wave of young adults who could end as I have. Governments need to legislate more on online gambling and act quickly, if they take too long, the horse will have bolted."
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