As world gambling experts gather in Auckland this week, the biggest threat on their minds is now online betting rather than the old bogey, poker machines, writes Simon Collins.

Gambling companies are using popular online games to lure young people into new forms of gambling to offset the dwindling popularity of poker machines, experts say.

About 200 experts are gathering for an international gambling conference in Auckland this week and New Zealand's success in choking off the pokies down from a quarter of all adults playing them in the 1990s to about 6 per cent today is an international "gold standard" for public health campaigns.

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But some of the overseas speakers are warning of another onslaught on the way as companies use supposedly non-monetary online games, and sports sponsorships, to "groom" a new generation into a new form of gambling betting around the clock via smartphones and other internet devices.


"We research the way in which kids take up the messages that are in gambling, such as William Hill's sponsorship of the Australian Open tennis," said Associate Professor Samantha Thomas, an Auckland-born public health expert at Deakin University in Melbourne.

"We now have evidence that kids aged 8 to 16 not only have very high levels of recall, and can name four or five or six sports betting companies, but that, given a range of products such as junk food, alcohol and gambling, some prefer a gambling product over a junk food."

Dr Sean Sullivan of Auckland's Abacus Counselling quotes a Canadian study finding that 54 per cent of the most popular 100 games for Facebook users contain gambling content.

"It's a way in the back door to encourage people to participate in something they wouldn't normally," he said.

Gambling companies are turning to online games because traditional forms of gambling have been declining in New Zealand for 20 years.

Internal Affairs Department surveys show that both Lotto and, especially, pokies took off meteorically when they were introduced during the free-market reforms of the late 1980s. Almost overnight, 28 per cent of New Zealanders aged 15-plus were playing the pokies by 1990 and 78 per cent were buying Lotto tickets.

But pokie participation has dropped in every subsequent survey, including more recent Health Ministry surveys that sampled much larger numbers of about 12,000 people, against 1200 in the Internal Affairs surveys, as part of broader polling on health issues with higher response rates.

Lotto's popularity has also sunk since 1995, and casinos since 2000. Racing's following has dwindled steadily since the 1980s, and although betting is now available on more sports, even that kind of betting is in decline.


"I think pokies in their current form are not appealing to younger people," said Graeme Ramsey, chief executive of the Problem Gambling Foundation.

Layla Lyndon-Tonga of the Maori public health agency Hapai Te Hauora said the pokie machine "is going to be a thing of the past as we head more into this day of being able to go online and create your own persona".

AUT's Professor Max Abbott, who has led gambling surveys since the 1990s and is a consultant on surveys overseas, says there have been similar dramatic reductions in other countries where gambling was liberalised in the 1980s and 90s.

He believes people try each new form of gambling as it arrives, but quickly "adapt" to the new environment.

"Initially it's novel, but over time there is a degree of boredom as people move to other things," he says. "There is also increased public awareness.

"Attitudes have changed too. Most people are now clearly distinguishing between different types of gambling, and people's views about the harm of gambling very much mirrors what the research shows."

Professor Thomas says public health agencies such as the Problem Gambling Foundation have driven this change in attitudes by focusing on gambling companies as the drivers of gambling harm.

Smartphone gambling is so new it barely shows up in the New Zealand statistics.

All online gambling other than sports betting was included in a category called "other" that attracted only 1 per cent of New Zealanders aged 15-plus in the first two Health Ministry surveys and 2 per cent in their latest survey in 2011-12.

Sports betting registered 5 per cent in the first two surveys and 3 per cent in 2011-12.

Neither sports betting nor "other" gambling showed up at all in the 15-24 age group, and even in the 25-34 group sports betting (6 per cent) and "other" gambling (2 per cent) were still less popular than pokies (8 per cent) in the latest survey.

However, international research by London-based H2 Gambling Capital estimates that global internet gambling jumped by 50 per cent from 2010 to 2015, rising from 7.6 per cent to 10 per cent of total gambling losses. It forecasts an online share of 12.9 per cent by 2020.

Partly based on H2's figures, Infometrics estimates New Zealanders lost about $58 million in bets on overseas racing and sports last year, about 2.8 per cent of the country's $2.1 billion total gambling losses.

Health Ministry figures on gambling help agencies' clients also show big increases in people seeking help for betting. TAB clients grew by almost half from 842 in 2010 to 1224 last year, and "other" clients almost doubled from 450 to 879, while people seeking help for pokies dropped from 8060 to 6407.

"While the numbers are still very small in terms of those presenting for help, they are growing," Mr Ramsey said.

"What we have here is a different demographic to what we have traditionally seen. If you think that pokie players, which is where most of the current harm comes from, tend to be middle-aged, predominantly female and from lower socio-economic groups, what we are seeing with sports betting is a different demographic that is younger, more affluent, more middle-class, male, professional.

"The experience in Australia is that that has led to a lot of advertising which is aimed at young people and which normalises gambling.

"I think for us, the issue is that we have to try and learn what we can from the experience of Australia with a view to not repeating it."