Graeme Ramsey: Pokies main cause of problem gambling misery

Photo / Christine Cornege
Photo / Christine Cornege

The harm caused by gambling problems extends beyond individuals, affecting families, friends, workmates, businesses and our community. Gambling has been a hot topic in the media of late. With the SkyCity "Convention Centre-for pokies" deal, a private member's Gambling Harm Reduction Bill and Auckland Council reviewing its gambling policy, it seems everybody has an opinion. Clearly it's time to get the record straight on problem gambling in New Zealand.

Gambling exploded in New Zealand in the late 1980s. As a nation our net gambling losses went from $221 million in 1986 to over $2 billion by 2005, where our annual losses have hovered ever since. Unfortunately gambling does not necessarily add economic value to our economy but it does creates problems.

However, not all gambling is the same in terms of the harm that it creates. Nor do people necessarily develop problems with "gambling". Rather people tend to develop problems with specific gambling products. Top of the list are pokie machines - over 70 per cent of the people who present for help to our service have developed problems because of pokie machines.

These are not people with "addictive" personalities, rather people who have been captured by a machine designed to keep people playing (and paying) as long as possible.

There are constant discussions about how big the problem is. New Zealand has a low prevalence of problem gambling according to most health surveys. But surveys that show a prevalence of people with problems (between 0.3 and 2 per cent of New Zealand adults) looks only at who is experiencing problems at a given point in time. They do not count people who are still dealing with the aftermath. Surveying gambling is notoriously difficult and as the Department of Internal Affairs concluded prevalence studies understate the problem.

But even a small prevalence does not equal a small problem. The harm caused by gambling problems extends beyond individuals, affecting their families, friends, workmates, businesses and our community. The crime, mental health issues, neglect and family violence that result are social costs we all bear through the demands they place on our health, justice and family support services.

As many as 500,000 people are affected by the significant economic, health, personal, and social costs that gambling problems cause in New Zealand.

And the story of problem gambling in New Zealand is the story of pokie machines. People lost $854 million on pokie machines last year, not counting the machines in casinos. Yet only 16 per cent of adults in New Zealand even touched a pokie machine last year. Most of us simply don't see the point. Conservatively, 40 per cent of the revenue machines take is coming from people with problems. There is a two in five chance that someone who uses a pokie machine at least once a fortnight will develop a problem.

If we are to reduce problem gambling, we need to address pokie machines.

Reducing the number of machines will have an impact. We know that when machines are removed people actually do not gamble on something else. In Norway when machines were removed money stayed in people's pockets or was spent on other things. People did not cross the border to gamble, underground pokie gambling did not develop and other gambling did not increase.

Many councils, concerned about their communities, have introduced sinking lid policies which over time gradually reduce the number of machines. John Key is wrong when he says that New Zealand has a sinking lid policy. It does not. Some councils do, others have chosen not to.

If we are to reduce the impact of problem gambling and the consequent social cost to all New Zealanders then we must address pokies in our communities.

Graeme Ramsey is chief executive officer of the Problem Gambling Foundation.

- NZ Herald

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