Problem gambling's poker face

By Rowena Orejana


It was only too easy for Margaret Swan to become hooked on the pokies. The sprightly 68-year-old recalls the first time she played the "iron bandits", as she calls them, was at a family celebration at a casino 20 years ago.

"I was looking for my cousin who was supposed to take me home. I found, instead, my stepbrother, who was playing. He told me to stay there and play while he looked for my cousin," she says. She was handed coins to play and that's when her problem began.

Mrs Swan gazes at the harbour from Orakei Marae. Auntie Margaret, as her whanau call her, says their cultural and generational understanding of gambling was different then from what it is today.

"I didn't really associate gambling as a problem because it was always associated with fundraising. What money was gathered was used for a purpose," she says. Gambling would later became her crutch.

"When I lost my husband, I was grieving and no one could help me. I would close myself off. People would tell me to go out and have fun," she says.

Dawn, who does not want her surname used, says it was that easy for her, too. Pubs weren't too welcoming of women during her time, she says, but pokie machines changed all that.

"It was entertainment to start. And then it wasn't. When you lose all your money, there's this feeling in here," says Dawn, rubbing her stomach, "that's not very nice.

"And when you lose all your money, you get this sense of being lost. You don't get your groceries. You don't pay your bills. You go back and it gets worse and worse. You lie. Others go to steal but that's not me. I realised it wasn't doing me any good at all."

A 2009 Ministry of Health study shows that pokie machines are concentrated in the most vulnerable communities. The 2010 Health and Lifestyles Survey by the Health Sponsorship Council showed Maori and Pacific adults, who are more concentrated in lower decile areas where there are more pokies, are about 3.5 times more likely than other ethnicities to be problem gamblers.

Sinking Lid

Hapai Te Hauora Tapui, Maori Public Health, is pushing Auckland's local boards to adopt a a sinking lid policy on pokie machines. So far, 10 of the 21 local boards have committed to this.

"There's a high distribution of machines in areas where the people can't afford it but are susceptible to playing them anyway. Basically, they are preying on the most vulnerable to benefit those who are not," says Anthony Hawke, Hapai's advocate on problem gambling.

He says Auckland Council will review its gambling policy by the end of the year. He will go back to the boards that have not committed to putting the policy in place.

"Manukau City and Waitakere City have already done the hard yards around this policy. So we started the process of raising the awareness so that the community can then decide whatever direction they wish to take. We really want to make sure that their voices are still heard in the new super-city structure," he says.

Department of Internal Affairs figures show that in the last quarter of 2011, Manurewa and Manukau City, which have a high concentration of Maori, spent $3.5 and $4 million on pokie machines, respectively.

"It's the prevalence of where the machines are, the access to the machines and the addictive nature of these machines. It's the way that they connect you to childhood memories. They have huge teams of people that do psychological profiles of people to make sure they are getting the best kinds of machines," Mr Hawke says.

Pushing for the policy isn't easy, though. Some local boards are opposed for fear of a back lash from community organisations that accept funding from gambling trusts.

"Everyone accepts pokie funding and, to some degree, it's entrenched in our culture," says Mr Hawke. Gambling funds are ploughed back into the community and are seen as doing good.

"The disparity happens when the communities that apply for funding aren't the communities that put the money into the machine. For example, the Philharmonic Orchestra or the Royal Ballet that have no Maori input whatsoever but accept huge amounts of money.

"If we are going to start reducing the disparities and raise the health of Maori and the low socio-economic areas, we really need to concentrate that money in their communities first."

But the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra told The Aucklander in a statement that trust funds help it run outreach programmes that benefit all Aucklanders. Its board member Pro fessor Jonathan Mane-Wheoki is charged with exploring initiatives including those specifically targeting Maori.

The Royal NZ Ballet says its Dance Explorer programme teaches preschoolers to adults in low to high decile schools and community centres.

"As a result of the support from trusts and foundations, RNZB is able to provide open access to outreach activities which are often free of charge or well-subsidised," says managing director Amanda Skoog.

Here for good?

The Lion Foundation, one of the biggest of 48 gaming trusts in the country, is solidly opposed to the sinking lid policy as proposed by Hapai Te Hauora Tapui or by a new bill proposed by Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell.

Phil Holden, its chief executive officer, says problem gambling is a highly emotive issue and the good the gaming trusts achieve easily gets lost in a heap of best intentions. "We're an easy target. I'm the evil pokie baron."

He says 98 per cent of recreational gamblers do not have a problem. "And the Lion Foundation returns the money to the community where it's raised."

He acknowledges that there may be more pokie machines in Manurewa or Manukau City. "But not all are owned by the Lion Foundation. That's why those people in Manurewa ask: 'Where does all the money go?' and that's a good question to ask," he says.

'From May 2010-June 2011, the foundation's grants in the Auckland region totalled $16.36 million. More than $6m went to South Auckland. Ten per cent of Lion's grants go to national charities and organisations such as St John and Plunket. Jonny Gritt, general manager for grants and marketing, says Middlemore Hospital's neonatal unit is also a beneficiary. "Pretty much all the equipment that surrounds [the babies] comes from community funds that have been raised from community gaming," he says.

Mr Holden says a sinking lid would reduce the grants available and put that money into casinos that operate purely for profit. "Casino shareholders will be richer and the communities will be poorer."

He prefers capping the number of gaming venues and a relocation clause, which "provides the opportunity to move the gaming venues out of areas that are seen as socially at risk to areas that are not."

As it is, Mr Holden says there is already a natural attrition happening in the sector. "It is declining 500 machines a year."

Mr Gritt warns the real danger does not come from the highly regulated community gaming industry. "Internet gambling is rising. The prediction for the size of that industry is phenomenal. It's about $50 billion and the real danger is that there is no protection to the player, there's no money for the community and all the money goes offshore," he says.

Mr Holden says the foundation is pushing the Government to look at major reforms.

"This sector could deliver more money to the community and be more efficient if there were fewer trusts involved in the distribution of the money.

"About 31 per cent of gaming proceeds goes to the administration of the trusts, 31 per cent goes to the Government in tax revenue, and 38 per cent goes back to the community.

"There are 48 gaming trusts in New Zealand. We would argue, there are about 40 too many."

TE URUROA FLAVELL'S BILL

Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell's Gambling Harm Reduction Bill, which seeks to amend the Gambling Act of 2003, is awaiting its first reading in Parliament.

"Every day we see major downstream effects from problem gambling embedded in our communities: family break-ups, workplace problems, increased pressure on health services and the criminal justice system and, for far too many, there are difficulties in even providing the basic essentials of a family life," says Mr Flavell.

He hopes his bill, if passed, will prevent, or reduce, gambling's harm and empower communities to control themselves by:

- Allowing communities to reduce the number or eliminate pokie machines from their areas;

- Cutting out racing and racing-stake money as authorised "charitable" purposes;

- Ensuring pokie profits are put back into the communities they came from;

- Phasing out "pokie trusts" and transferring responsibility for distributions of grants to local authorities; and

- Introducing player tracking and pre-commit cards.

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- THE AUCKLANDER

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