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Herald on Sunday editorial: Gambling Act catches a sprat

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Pokie machines face particular restrictions because they are said to be unusually addictive. Photo / NZ Herald
Pokie machines face particular restrictions because they are said to be unusually addictive. Photo / NZ Herald

Gamblers are their own worst enemy and the same can be said of those who provide the means. A pokie trust has alerted Internal Affairs that events such as fishing contests may be in breach of the Gambling Act - when they charge for entry and offer expensive spot prizes.

The department, as we reported last week, has taken legal advice, had it confirmed that the law really is an ass, and, acting on the pokie trust's complaint, has issued warnings to 15 organisations that they cannot give away prizes worth more than $500.

So much for a car, a boat, a holiday - the sort of side-offering that helps sell a fishing contest. Nobody really goes for the prize. They go for the fun. The likelihood of hauling up the tagged fish is so remote it would not be worth the quest, were it not for the sea, the sunshine, the boat and the company.

Spot prizes make the contest more healthy, one organiser told us last week.

The prizes gave children a chance, creating a family event. They also meant the objective was not simply to catch the most, which can turn the contest to a slaughter.

How, then, can a pokie trust claim spot prizes undermine its business? In the absence of prizes, fishing enthusiasts are unlikely to give up the sea, the sun and the rest to sit in the porch of a pub and pump poker machines all afternoon. There are more pleasant ways to lose money. To each his own.

Gambling law is hard to fathom. It cracks down only on good luck. Contestants are allowed to win prizes for the biggest fish or the most fish - the law believes that catching those takes some skill - but to catch the fish tagged for a car or boat takes just luck. Harmless luck.

The Problem Gambling Society has not expressed concern that fishing contests are enticing too many people to spend money they can not afford, depriving their families of food (there is always the prospect of fish) and thus making life a misery for the contestants and those close to them. The pokie trusts may feel they have been under excessive indictment over the past year or two, but that is no reason to drag other games of chance into the dock.

What good does it do pokies to have the likes of fishing contests forced to lower the value of their entry prizes or do away with them altogether? That would hardly save casino gambling from the three swords now hanging over it: the Auckland Council's sinking lid on poker machine consents, opposition to the Government's tentative deal with SkyCity, and an MP's bill to abolish gaming trusts and require more pokie revenue to be returned to the community where it was raised.

There is no honour among thieves, they say, and there has never been much solidarity in the gambling industry. Lotto and casinos were introduced to this country over the objections of the racing business. Racing used the same protectionist argument the pokie trust has raised. It claims they are competing for the same discretionary dollar. That is a fallacy.

Every attraction generates its own demand, and every prohibition should have to be justified on its own terms.

Entry prizes and lucky dips of any value should not be banned without proof of some specific harm - not simply because they are won on luck and therefore may be categorised as gambling.

Pokie machines face particular restrictions because they are said to be unusually addictive. They are cheap and easy to play and their pay-outs are instant, enticing the punter to put the winnings straight back into the machine until the money has gone.

Incidental prizes at shows and fishing contests bear no comparison. Like door prizes and all sorts of sweeps and lucky dips that people organise, they do no harm. If they have been caught by the Gambling Act, it is time the act was thrown back.

- Herald on Sunday

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