The Government is neglecting its duty of care to problem gamblers, writes Peter Adams, associate professor in the School of Population Health at the University of Auckland and director of the Centre for Gambling Studies.
Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne spoke recently of the Government's intention to act with urgency to control the availability of the synthetic cannabis Kronic.
This was in marked contrast with its lack of seriousness around gambling, as revealed in the recent deal with SkyCity Casino to invest $350 million in a convention centre in return for a relaxation of gambling laws.
This lack of seriousness is emphasised by Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who suggested that a few more gambling machines wouldn't do much harm, and by Prime Minister John Key, who pointed out that casinos offer a more monitored and responsible gambling environment.
Both these comments misrepresent the scale and nature of impacts from gambling.
Problem gambling is unquestionably a major cause of preventable harm. Each year several thousand New Zealanders face sufficient misery to drive them to seek help from services, and thousands more tough it out. On top of this, several times that number struggle with the consequences of financial ruin, marital distress, child neglect or mental illness, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide.
The burdens of gambling fall disproportionately on disadvantaged communities, entrenching inequity and eroding social cohesion. At the centre of all these harms stands the poker machine.
About half the overall money lost in gambling is lost on pokies and more than 85 per cent of those seeking help describe pokies as their main problem.
While the numbers of problem gamblers in a population typically vary between 1 to 2 per cent, they contribute disproportionately to gambling industry profits.
Added to this, pokies in casinos are far more potent - and accordingly more addictive - than pokies elsewhere.
The casino pokie is set up to maximise consumption. The ratio of wins to losses, the varying jackpots, the use of sounds and lights, the buzz of many people gathered for the same purpose - all these are managed in ways that urge players to keep spending.
The claim by Key that casino operations are more responsible can be compared to claims that one armament exporter is more responsible than another; the product they trade still retains high potential for harm.
Significant efforts have been made over the last 10 years, by people both inside and outside government, in setting up a framework to manage and reduce the harms from gambling. These have included: constraints on the number of pokies, measures to moderate promotion, public-awareness campaigns and tighter enforcement procedures.
Considerable progress has been made in the form of regulation and initiatives that have moved the area on from the free-for-all expansion of gambling during the 1990s.
The deal with SkyCity signals the willingness of our political masters to turn their backs on the progress made in bedding in a principled and integrated approach to managing gambling harm. If one of the primary duties of government is to protect the weak and vulnerable from exploitation, then this deal highlights a move away from its duty of care and towards the interests of the gambling business.
This leads one to ask: "Who is it that is asking for more gambling?" Indeed, there is no popular voice pushing this cause. In New Zealand, as anywhere else in the world, there has never been a popular movement advocating more gambling. And yet the availability and consumption of gambling products keeps rising.
An examination of what happens internationally reveals that the pressure for more gambling comes invariably from the combined interests of governments looking for easy-fix funding solutions and gambling industries bursting for expansion.
The profits from pokie gambling - half of which come from problem gamblers - are just too accessible to resist.
In New Zealand, besides the Government receiving about $300 million to $400 million in revenue from pokies per year, the profits also contribute to a range of developments which a government might be expected to support, but which gambling windfalls enable them to side-step.
These include the funding of large parts of our community and recreation sectors and, in the case of the convention centre, infrastructural developments for our largest city. The cost for this, and one it is clearly willing to take on our behalf, entails forfeiting its duty of care for the well being of a sizeable section of our community.
So why does an unresearched and uncertainly harmful product such as Kronic receive more urgent Government attention than a highly addictive product like casino pokies?
Perhaps the same reason a government chooses to bend the rules to secure The Hobbit movie - but the bending of hard-won rules set up to protect vulnerable populations from avoidable harm is another matter.