John is a senior reporter at the Bay of Plenty Times

Health worker urges pokie rule change

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Tauranga topped New Zealand last year for pokie machine gambling, with gamblers routinely slipping through the net designed to stop them becoming addicted to pokie machines.

Salvation Army public health worker Stephanie St George yesterday gave a rare insight into how the rules were working in Tauranga in a bid to persuade the city council to tighten its controls on pokies.

"The harm this gambling causes in our community is real and quantifiable."

She said the council's policy that allowed the supply of machines to grow in tandem with population growth was a possible reason why Tauranga had the largest percentage growth in gambling machine spending last year of any other council in New Zealand.

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The council was hearing submissions on the review of its gambling venues policy. It heard from people who worked with problem gamblers, city sports organisations who relied on grants from pokie proceeds, and the gaming societies that owned the machines.

Salvation Army Oasis said the only viable way to reduce the excessive availability of pokies in Tauranga was a sinking lid policy. It urged the council to rethink proposed new rules to allow gaming machines to be relocated.

The council proposes to drop the ratio from one machine per 147 people to one machine per 228 people.

Ms St George, who co-ordinates the programme that excluded problem gamblers from bars, said there was ample evidence to suggest that the council's current policy was failing to reduce gambling harm.

She said "mystery shopper" campaigns by Internal Affairs along with her 14 months of co-ordinating the multi-venue self-exclusion service had "strongly suggested" that the majority of venues were failing to adhere to the minimum legal standards of host responsibility.

"I routinely speak to clients who have gambled for hours every day without once being approached, or who have been permitted to gamble and repeatedly withdrawn money in venues from which they are excluded."

Stephanie St George. Photo/file
Stephanie St George. Photo/file

Ms St George said this indifference had proven difficult for the regulator to address because it was so pervasive. "I am aware of one Tauranga venue currently under investigation by the department and I have an extensive list of other venues I have concerns about."

On a percentage comparison with other councils, she said $1.5 million more dollars was lost in Tauranga gaming machines last year. This equated to over 5 per cent growth, compared to Tauranga's actual population growth of 2-3 per cent.

She said a large majority of the $30 million spent in Tauranga gaming machines in 2015 left the region in the form of government taxes, machine upkeep and gaming society costs.

Ms St George said 3400 to 6600 city residents were at risk from their gambling. Given the $30 million fed into Tauranga machines last year, she suspected the number of at-risk gamblers was an under-estimate.

Angela Paul, the communications manager for the country's largest gambling society, the New Zealand Community Trust, said they prided themselves on being responsible and ethical. Eighty per cent of revenue that went back in grants was used to fund sport.

She opposed a sinking lid policy, saying New Zealand's problem gambling rate had remained consistently low at 0.3 to 0.7 per cent of population.

This was despite a 25 per cent drop in the number of gaming machines nationally over the past 10 years.

The trust's northern regional manager, David Stones, argued that gaming venues should be allowed to shift, saying one Tauranga bar had been robbed three times in the last six months, with police asking why the bar could not be shifted for safety reasons.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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