My great-grandfather was an entrepreneur who acquired a considerable property portfolio. My grandfather was a lawyer and a problem gambler.
Grandma realised after she signed the legal documents to sell the properties she inherited. There was no property portfolio left, only the ancestral home. Perhaps we were the lucky ones.
Morgan Barrett gambled away his life savings of $500,000 and died of a heart attack the day he spent the final dollars. Ex- All Black Zac Guildford stole $40,000 from his grandfather's savings to gamble.
It's not a lack of willpower. Problem gambling is an addiction, a health problem – like drugs or tobacco. The Ministry of Health has a separate unit dedicated to treating problem gamblers.
While the high-profile cases make headlines, most problem gamblers have the least to lose.
Lisa Campbell, director of Salvation Army Oasis, says: "Every day, we see people who have turned to pokie machines in a desperate attempt to claw their way out of poverty. These people are not playing the pokies for fun. They see it as the only way out for themselves; our clients have lost jobs, businesses, homes and even their families because of addiction to these machines."
The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), the gambling regulator, is currently reviewing pokie regulations and legislation to counter the growing threat of online gambling is expected soon.
New Zealanders lost $2.6 billion last year on gambling. It's a growth industry.
The total spending has increased by 30 per cent over the previous five years (after adjusting for inflation). The pokie spends increased by 29 per cent and Lotto a staggering 75 per cent.
While Lotto is comparatively benign, we are spending more because of increasing online purchasing and products like Instant Kiwi. Lotto is planning a third weekly draw and more of the instant reward online games, a development not welcomed by those at the coalface.
But our highest spend, nearly a billion dollars a year, is on pokies.
No, it's not just fun for 99 per cent as the Gaming Machine Association (GMA) tries to make out.
Sixteen per cent of pokie players are high-risk gamblers, according to the DIA, rising to 38 per cent for Māori, compared to 7 per cent for other forms of gambling.
The largest concentration of pokie machines is in the most deprived areas – 63 per cent in deciles 7-10 on the deprivation index, compared to 7 per cent in deciles 1 and 2.
Easy access in deprived areas normalises gambling and increases harm.
On the flip side, 100 per cent of Lotto's profit and 40 per cent of gaming machines' spend goes back to support community projects, sports and charities. GMA (and many charities) highlight this to justify pokies and argue against any reduction of revenues.
However, little of this funding flows back to the communities worst affected.
As per the Problem Gambling Foundation (PGF), pokies earn 74 per cent of their revenue from the most deprived areas but those areas receive only 12 per cent of the grants. Money flows from deprived to more affluent areas, from the poorest in our society to the likes of rugby unions and the trotting club, increasing inequalities.
Organisations like the PGF and Salvation Army argue that the proposed changes don't go far enough. GMA calls the proposals unworkable and appears ready to fight tooth and nail against any reduction in revenues.
Pokie machines and the venues are designed to keep you playing longer and spend the maximum. DIA is looking at lowering risks on both fronts.
Proposals for improving venues include – more staff training and adding gaming to alcohol host responsibility certification. Regular monitoring of pokie rooms to stop players from gambling for long periods. Improving compliance of self-exclusion for problem gamblers. Increasing DIA inspections and penalties.
PGF proposes moving machines out of dedicated pokie areas to general areas in the venues. This removes the addictive isolation that discourages social interaction and enables easier monitoring for staff.
DIA proposes locating ATMs outside pokie rooms; in Victoria, they must have special limits – a maximum of $200 for a withdrawal and a daily limit of $500. Morgan Barrett made 17 visits to an ATM in one session.
Machine design changes proposed include – limits to jackpots, blander design, warning signs, removing addictive features like sound and lights, longer "sleep" intervals for machines, etc.
A "sinking lid" policy (not approving new pokie venues and machines) has gradually reduced the number of venues through attrition, however, less than half the territorial authorities follow this policy. And, increasingly addictive features have kept the revenue increasing.
We need to stop extracting the maximum from our poorest. Minimise the social harms caused, lives blighted, children going hungry, families destroyed.
Let's hope the changes deliver.
• Kushlan Sugathapala is a researcher and writer on social justice issues.