Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

25 years of Lotto

It was 25 years ago this month that TV's Chic Littlewood toured the length of the country with a plastic drum called 'Tulip'.

A quarter-century on, we ask the question: Does winning Lotto make you happy? More importantly, does it make New Zealand a better place? Cherie Howie investigates.

Rose Marie Nathan wins $1 million on Lotto's Winning Wheel earlier this year. Photo / Supplied
Rose Marie Nathan wins $1 million on Lotto's Winning Wheel earlier this year. Photo / Supplied

There's Jerry, a big black and white ball of fur. There's Orlando, a large fluffy ginger, and Aroha, a tabby. Julia is black and white and so is her smaller friend, Helen. A sixth kitten will soon join the cuddle club.

For Susan Hooton, Lotto has made her life warmer, snugglier and, yes, happier. And that's before she even gets talking about her 10 chickens.

Five years ago, the 59-year-old grandmother and her accountant husband Nigel lived the dream of many when seven balls tumbled out of a spinning barrel and made them $2.3 million richer.

Sixty-year-old Nigel still works full time. His indulgence was sharing his riches with his dentist in exchange for a $12,000 fix-up job on his teeth.

Susan quit her demanding full-time job, bought a new car, began a $400,000 makeover of their home in Christchurch and shared the couple's winnings with family.

Yet, when asked how her life has changed since the win, it's clear her biggest rewards came from the smallest residents in the house.

Already the owner of two cats, the millions meant Susan could afford to adopt and feed three more SPCA kittens. Chickens also featured on her wish list - the couple had some early in their marriage, but Nigel wasn't a fan.

With a large section and his wife now only working a few hours a month, he couldn't say no. "I was able to get them and they're awesome," she says.

Susan's gained a lot since her win - and she's lost something: 50kg, to be exact.

"I'm going to the gym now and I've got time to do it," she explains. "Winning Lotto has given me time to concentrate on me for once ...I'm definitely happier since I won. I think anyone who wins Lotto and isn't happier has a bad attitude."

It was July 1987 - 25 years ago this month - that a nationwide roadshow introduced us to Lotto. Much-loved actor Chic Littlewood showed off the barrel and more actors demonstrated how to fill out the numbers panels. Kiwis flocked to their dairies to buy tickets ahead of the first Lotto draw on August 1. The top prize was $359,808.

Since then, NZ Lotteries figures show a whopping $6.1 billion in prize money has been dished out to just under 200 million punters. A further 94 people have become instant millionaires as part of Lotto promotions.

But, after all those years and all that money, has it made our lives any better? More than $3 billion has been returned to the community in charitable grants. The Government turns to lottery grants to help fund services such as the Coastguard.

More than 5000 tickets have won the first division, but for every happy millionaire, more people turn to counselling services seeking help for Lotto gambling addiction.

Auckland sales rep Rose-Marie Nathan is one of Lotto's newest millionaires. Three months ago the country saw her fortunes turn when she spun the $1m prize on Lotto's Winning Wheel.

But not too much has changed since then, says Rose-Marie. The 36-year-old and her partner Sam Bruce, 42, are both still working, and renting.

After clearing a lifetime of accumulated debt in just an hour, their only extravagance has been to buy a $30,000 ex-demo Ford Fiesta to ferry round their 6-year-old son.

"We're just trying to provide for our little family. We want to treat this opportunity with the respect it deserves."

Is she happier since her win?

She thinks about her answer.

"We were pretty happy beforehand. We've had some big challenges in life. My mum was in a hit-and-run when I was pregnant and she had to recover from head injuries. We realise that life is short.

"Finances don't create your happiness but wealth does provide some freedom and liberation - and with that comes happiness by default."

The good

Boaties who get in trouble on New Zealand's treacherous coastline have cause to give thanks to the Coastguard every week - and they should thank the Lottery Grants Board too.

Chalking up a quarter century on the calender isn't the only milestone NZ Lotteries are celebrating. Last year they hit another landmark when the Lottery Grants Board nudged past $3 billion in donations to the community. But that very generosity has raised concerns from some who think the board is picking up the slack for a Government that is cutting funding to core public services.

The Coastguard got $1.46 million from lotteries last year, and they're asking for more this year - after the Government slashed its funding by $1m over three years.

The volunteer-based organisation relies almost entirely on donations to survive, and national marketing manager Christine Haru says finances are tight. Without lotteries grants, they'd be foundering like the boaties they rescue.

"We apply every year and we're absolutely grateful," she says. "We have asked for more from the Lottery Grants Board this year."

Sports teams, community projects, countless volunteer organisations and thousands of other so-deemed worthy recipients have all benefited from a share of the Lotto dollar over the years.

The Photoplayer Restoration Trust is among them. Trust chairman John McLeod and a small band of volunteers in the Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki were given $8000 last year to find out whether the almost 100-year-old K-style photoplayer they rescued from a garden shed in Auckland a year earlier could be restored.

The photoplayer is an automatic mechanical orchestra used in movie theatres during the silent film era to provide music and sound effects. The player, which started its life in Auckland's Strand Theatre in 1916, is believed to be one of only two left in the world.
McLeod said they were delighted to discover the photoplayer could be restored and they will now start fundraising for the $300,000 project. "We're very appreciative of what they've done."

But for every dollar given to a small, quirky community project, there's twice that given to big agencies and funds like SPARC, Creative NZ, Women's Refuge and, last year, the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal. Should such core public services have to rely on the charity of the gambling industry and the money it raises from New Zealand's poorest communities? It's certainly true that as more lotteries grants go to public services, there is a smaller proportion available for grassroots community projects.

The arts have taken a hit. The Film Commission warned filmmakers in January it would have to cut back on the number of films it helps finance because of stalled government support and a drop in funding from sources such as the Lottery Grants Board.

Ruth Dyson, Labour's internal affairs spokeswoman, sits on the grants board.

"The board is hugely oversubscribed and even with an increase in Lotto sales they're still massively unable to meet the calls from the community for funding," she says. "There's a lot of things you think that, 'gosh, that would really be a central Government core responsibility'."

"It's not that the Government should fund everything, it's that they should fund their core services. It's about choices."

But Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain "disputes entirely" any suggestion that tax cuts for the rich have left community organisations reliant on the poorer people who buy Lotto tickets.

He says the grants board has always been oversubscribed. Increased demand was the result of the credit crunch hitting the bottom line of community trusts, who relied on investment returns to fund their grants. That left the grants board to pick up the slack.

The Government had created the Community Response Fund to help organisations deliver vital social services, he says. That fund closed this year.

The bad

Weekly income $266. Weekly Lotto spend $200.

It's a shocking figure - but that's the reality for one of Mangere Budgeting and Family Support Services chief executive Darryl Evans' clients.

"Overwhelmingly, our families believe they are going to win themselves out of debt," he says. "Certainly amongst the Polynesian community they believe that - maybe it's something to do with their belief in God."

Budget advisers have to be careful not to trample their clients' "hopes and dreams", Evans says, so a slot in the budget form is included for the weekly Lotto spend. "The reality is people do spend money on Lotto, just like they do on alcohol and Sky TV."

Experts agree Lotto poses less of an addiction risk than quick-return games, such as scratchies, racing and the pokies - but it has become more and more problematic.

Health officials have warned Lotto bosses they are driving up the numbers of poor people with gambling problems, by targeting sales at the country's most deprived areas. They have told the Lotteries Commission there appears to be a link between spikes in addiction figures and big Lotto jackpots.

New Ministry of Health figures show 332 people asked for help with Lotto addiction from ministry-funded gambling treatment services in 2010/11, up from 52 people six years earlier. The steepest increase in pleas for help coincided with the advent of online Lotto sales - and this year, officials asked Parliament's government administration select committee to closely monitor problems with online gambling stemming from the introduction of MyLotto, the commission's online sales platform.

Health worker Grant Reihana, who works with people looking for help with their gambling, says some of his clients wonder if they are spending too much on Lotto. "It's not always a problem, but they do want to understand when they should be concerned."

Problem Gambling Foundation New Zealand chief executive Graeme Ramsey says Lotto is the least problematic form of gambling. But he also knows of people spending hundreds of dollars a week on tickets, and the number of people asking for help is growing.

While he is encouraged by New Zealand Lotteries' stated commitment to help reduce the harm caused by gambling, he is also worried by the Crown entity's increasing ad spend. "They're one of the biggest advertisers out there," he says. "That does normalise gambling."

This week, Auckland celebrity Aja Rock tweeted that you're more likely to die on the road buying your Lotto ticket than win Powerball. Alarmingly, she's not far from the truth.

A spokesman for the Chief Coroner's Office says coroners have inquired into two cases where people have died in road crashes in the past four years, while returning from buying their Lotto ticket.

The Lotto odds are a little better. The number of Powerball winners this year? Four.

- Herald on Sunday

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