Kiwis' love affair with gambling on the wane

By Simon Collins

New figures confirm that New Zealanders' love affair with gambling is running out of steam.

Internal Affairs Department statistics published yesterday show the average New Zealander lost $478.30 on gambling in the year to last June, down marginally from $479.65 the previous year and from $502.02 when the love affair was hottest in 2003-04.

But the data also includes the first full year of the department's new electronic monitoring system for poker machines in pubs and clubs and provides the first figure for the gross amount wagered on the pokies - a cool $10.1 billion, or $2386 for every man, woman and child.

The pokies paid out $9.2 billion in prizes, so the net losses were only $938 million, or $270 a head.

There are still no gross figures for pokies or table games in casinos, but the net losses in casinos totalled $477 million or $112 a head.

Gamblers' losses at casinos were up 1.6 per cent in the latest year. The department's gambling policy manager, John Markland, said this was partly because of the completion of reconstruction of the main gaming floor at Auckland's Sky City casino.

Losses on racing and sports betting were up 1.4 per cent to $273 million ($64 a head), and on Lotto and other Lotteries Commission games, up 4.7 per cent to $346 million ($81 a head).

But losses on the pokies in pubs and clubs were down 1.3 per cent in the year to June, and have since dropped by 5 per cent in the three months to September and by 6 per cent in the December quarter compared with the same quarters of 2007.

Problem Gambling Foundation chief executive Graeme Ramsey said the pokie data matched overseas evidence that spending on gambling is dropping in line with all other commodities in the recession.

"There is definitely a decline in casinos in the US. Vegas is way down," he said. "It's different from previous recessions. The conventional wisdom is that people gamble more when they get more desperate, but that is not happening this time."

New Zealand's per capita spending on gambling multiplied nine-fold from 1984 to 2004, from $58 to $502, as the previous controlled regime was liberalised with the successive introduction of Lotto, club pokies, casinos and, more recently, midweek Lotto games.

But the temperature has cooled since then, partly because a new Gambling Act in 2003 let local bodies impose "sinking lids" and other controls on poker machine numbers. The number of machines has dropped by a fifth from a peak of 25,221 in June 2003 to 19,879 at the end of last year.

But the biggest chiller was the ban on smoking in public places at the end of 2004, which forced smokers to leave their machines to go outside for a smoke. Many then realised they had gambled enough and went home.

Pokie losses dropped by 1 per cent in the year to June 2005, and by a further 12 per cent in the first full year of the smoking ban to June 2006.

Losses recovered by 5 per cent in the year to June 2007. Mr Markland said then that overseas experience showed smoking bans cut gambling initially but that it crept back up for up to five years afterwards. But the 2008 figures suggest the increase has been stopped and reversed by the recession.

- NZ Herald

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