By Ella Stewart of RNZ
Despite the global pandemic, lockdowns and job losses, New Zealanders spent more gambling on poker machines in 2020 than ever before.
New figures from the Department of Internal Affairs show the spend on pokies last year was the equivalent of every adult spending $204 - and most of that was in the three months to December.
The quarterly spend was $252 million spent across 14,781 poker machines outside of casinos nationwide, the highest since records began in 2007.
Department of Internal Affairs director of gambling Chris Thornborough said the results were unexpected.
"We've been tracking the pokie money through Covid, and we knew there was going to be an impact but we were surprised by the bounce-back once the pokie restrictions were eased," Thornborough said.
"We didn't anticipate that there'd be quite as vigorous a bounce-back as there was over the December quarter."
Overall, annual gambling profits were down $128m - but that was because Covid-19 stalled access to pubs, clubs and casinos.
Online gambling for Lotto was up mostly due to the lockdowns. Kiwis spent $631m buying Lotto tickets in 2021, an increase of 13 per cent.
Gaming Machine Association chairman Peter Dengate Thrush said the fast bounce-back that gaming machines saw was part of a wider trend in New Zealand's economy.
"New Zealand, in general, has not suffered as much from the Covid experience as we might've done, we're seeing rebounds across the whole of the economy. You have a look at the GDP figures for the last year - I was having a look earlier - I think overall we're seeing a rebound in that quarter of 14 per cent in goods in that final quarter," Thrush said.
"The whole of the economy has not done as badly under a pandemic as we might've done."
By law, 40 per cent of poker machine proceeds must be distributed as grants.
Thrush said the increase in gambling was a much-needed boost for New Zealand communities.
"We put out, you know, $300 million worth of grants into the local community, keeping sport and culture and art activities going all over the country so it's an enormous endeavour and it's, you know, it's an enormous advantage to New Zealand."
Pub Charity chief executive Martin Cheer said the increase was not unexpected.
"A significant number that are locked in, in New Zealand now, the population continues to grow with people coming back and people just have nowhere to spend their money and so it is going to show up in retail spending and discretionary spending in which gaming machines are just a part of that."
He noted that the increase in Lotto was part of a bigger trend of online gambling, which he said was far more damaging to communities.
"It's inevitable that we're going to see this migration of lots of activities to online including gambling but unfortunately lots of it's offshore and unregulated. It doesn't produce any returns for the community, it can't be taxed. So it's a very disruptive and destructive trend for the industry."
Central government classifies pokies at level 4, the highest category due to their risk of addiction and harm.
Problem Gambling Foundation chief executive Paula Snowden said the latest stats were concerning but not surprising.
"Our clients told us that they experienced only relief when the venues were closed during lockdowns last year. But we know they returned to pokie gambling."
Half of poker machines were located in poor communities, she said.
"People losing the money are poor people in poor communities and what we say is we've got to stop focusing on the 40 per cent that becomes charity and think about the 60 per cent of the losses because they walk out of poor communities."
The gambling figures for 2020 were the equivalent of every adult New Zealander spending $572, made up of $128 at casinos, $160 on Lotto, $80 at the TAB, and a whopping $204 at the pokies.