Australia tops its fair share of lists, including hosting the deadliest animals on earth and, perhaps paradoxically, some of the world’s most livable cities. But the country also tops the charts on an indicator that is far more insidious: gambling losses. Last year, Australians lost $17.5 billion, or about $949 per adult. These per capita losses are among the highest in the world.

How did Australia get into this mess? It is the outcome of a symbiosis between a hugely profitable industry and pliant governments.

Half of Australians’ losses were on slot or video gambling machines, a grossly outsize proportion compared with other countries. Video gambling machines are good at making money because they are designed to be addictive. They have been called the “crack cocaine of gambling,” and Australia is hooked.

For gamblers, it is not always the sense of chance that is attractive but the predictability of the game that underpins the escapism. Even winning disrupts this state of dissociation. “The point is to stay in a zone,” writes the anthropologist Natasha Schüll in her comprehensive examination of these machines, “Addiction by Design.” Professor Schüll explains, “Their aim is not to win but simply to continue.”

The social costs are enormous: bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide, domestic violence and countless other stories, all miserable in their own way. Video gambling machines have a similar addictive effect and destructive impact on lives and families as drugs do. A recent report from the state of Victoria found gambling to be a social issue of comparable magnitude to major depressive disorder or alcohol misuse. Yet those who profit from them have none of the stigma of drug dealers.

The con may soon be over. In October, Maurice Blackburn, an Australian law firm where I have worked, filed a suit that could be transformative. The firm is suing a Melbourne casino and a gambling machine manufacturer, alleging that they have breached the law by making these machines misleading and deceptive to consumers by rigging them to give gamblers the impression that they have better odds of winning than they really do. The case is designed to attack the very features that manufacturers have spent so long perfecting.

– Lizzie O’Shea

Read more: Australia Has a Serious Gambling Problem