Stressed-out Cantabrians have been squandering Red Cross cash handouts on poker machines.

Inquiries by The Star have revealed that the $500 and $1000 pay outs given to people affected by the earthquake have helped fuel a surge in poker machine use since the February and September earthquakes.

Between January and March $19 million was spent on the pokies in Christchurch- up $600,000 from the same period in 2010.

The increase has happened despite the closure of a quarter of pokie outlets following the February 22 earthquake, and up to 10,000 people left the city immediately after the quake.

After the September earthquake expenditure increased by over $800,000, from the July quarter to the quarter ending December 31.

Christchurch Oasis Centre spokesman Peter Jamieson said he was aware that some people had used Red Cross grants to gamble.

"It isn't rampant, but there have been some incidents of that happening. If you give someone with a gambling problem a large amount of money they are going to deal with it the only way they know how to. The Red Cross doesn't check if someone has a gambling problem before they give out the grant," he said.

Salvation Army spokesman Charles Prattley was not surprised: "Some people have done very well out of the grants. We've had a few that have received Red Cross grants, and grants from the Salvation Army and still come back the next week needing a food parcel," he said.

The Red Cross has paid out more than $43 million for emergency and hardship grant.

Problem Gambling Foundation national pubic health practice leader Tony Milne said: "Our research shows that when people receive a large grant, such as the Red Cross grant, gambling increases.

We've been visiting the pubs that are still open and we've been seeing that the pokies are packed right from the start of the day till close."

He was very concerned about the reasons people were gambling following the quake. "People are gambling as a relief for all the stresses, or as a means of escaping. People are also desperate for money, because they have lost their jobs or are now living on a benefit.

We know that people are trying to increase what little money they have by playing the pokies. But if you play the pokie machines you are going to lose, they design them that way," he said.

The problem of gambling is only set to get worse over the next few months. "We think it will get worse rather than better if the trend after the September earthquake repeats," Mr Milne said.

Red Cross spokesman John Ware said inevitably some people would chose to spend the money unwisely.

"We don't condone the use of the grants for gambling but the vast majority spend it on important needs."

Mr Milne asked all those who were concerned about gambling to call the Problem Gambling Foundation helpline: 0800 664 262.