Let’s end reign of pokies

Some issues deserve the full glare of the public spotlight but rarely get the attention they deserve because they don’t immediately register as “mainstream” concerns.

Gambling through pokie machines is one of them.

It has been described as a tax on those who can’t do arithmetic and the figures bear this out.

A gambling addict told me how a counsellor had suggested that as part of getting over his addiction he should research pokie machines to see how much he was being ripped off. The figures were illuminating.

Using typical betting behaviour he calculated an average run of luck would lose a person $30 to $40 an hour. If they had bad luck it might go as high as $100 an hour. But even with a run of good luck a person would typically lose at least $10 every hour. Even when you’re winning you lose.

When pokie machines were introduced into communities the effects of problem gambling were downplayed. We were told it was such a marginal issue there was no need for concern. Little organised opposition was mounted simply because pokies were largely an unknown quantity.

But the problems are enormous. No less than 88 per cent of people referred to problem gambling organisations have their addiction to pokie machines. Most of these people (more than 90%) have their addiction to non-casino pokies – the pokies in the local neighbourhood pubs and clubs. By comparison only 0.6% of problem gamblers have an addiction to Lotto, scratchies or Keno combined.

And so with the advent of pokies problem gambling has soared. An estimated 50,000 New Zealanders now suffer from severe problem gambling.

A few weeks back I sat in on a seminar on the links between crime and gambling.

A former police officer talked about a review he helped conduct of fraud prosecutions on Auckland’s North Shore. The review showed that 80% of all fraud cases in the previous year involved gambling, although this was rarely reported when the cases came to court.

But high-profile frauds are not at the core of the problem. Instead it is through pokie machines in communities that more than $1 billion is lost each year in gambling.

Participants at the seminar talked about a combination of desperation and hope which spawns problem gamblers in low-income communities. This is the context in which bad decisions are made and significant amounts of desperately needed family income is lost.

The machine owners feed on these communities. Forty-seven per cent of pokie venues are in the poorest one-third of our communities. This is also where 56% of Maori and 72% of Pacific peoples live.

Put another way, in our high income communities there is one pokie machine for every 465 people but in our lowest income communities there is one machine for every 75 people. Let’s not kid ourselves who these machines are designed to suck money from.

One of the most remarkable cons perpetrated on us by the pokie lobby is that the proceeds from gambling fund community groups. But we have to lose $3 for every $1 given in community grants. What kind of sick mathematics is this?

To add insult to injury one of the participants at the seminar talked about a trust owning pokie machines in a South Auckland hotel which sent the proceeds to a pony club in a wealthy Auckland suburb. Stories like this are commonplace. Nothing illegal here, just another way in which income transfers in a reverse of Robin Hood. These are the Sheriff of Nottingham’s pokie machines.

Perhaps the saddest story of all from this seminar was of a small Maori community in an isolated rural area where twice a week the locals get into cars to drive 150km to the nearest pokie machines to feed their addictions.

Under our Labour-led Government pokie machine numbers increased from 14,000 in 1999 to 23,500 last year despite not a single neighbourhood request for more machines. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Such is the strength of the pokie lobby that despite the people of Hamilton being overwhelmingly opposed to a casino licence being issued in their city it was deemed through a government body to be in the “national interest” that they have one. Yeah, right!

Communities have now had a good chance to see the destructive effects of pokies and should now have a democratic say in whether they want these cynically placed, blood-sucking machines in their neighbourhoods.

Local body elections are due later this year. Were the Government to require all local authorities to hold referendums on pokies alongside the local-body elections then we could see winners all round. Improved community incomes and a dramatic reduction in problem gambling would be two of the immediate outcomes.

Let’s end the parasitic reign of pokies.