New Zealanders spent $2.4 billion on gambling last year - around $648 for every person in the country.

That was $49m higher than last year, but once inflation and population growth was taken into account it was a slight decrease on the previous financial year.

It continues a trend of falling expenditure on gambling in this country, though problem gambling groups say the levels of harm related to gambling have remained the same for more than a decade.

The Department of Internal Affairs, releasing the figures today, said the largest share of spending went into non-casino gaming machines, also known as pokies.

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In total, $895m was spent on pokies. The machines are mostly closely linked with gambling harm and officials focus most of their harm reductions efforts of them.

Despite those efforts, the total spend on pokies was only slightly down in the last year - from about $242 per person to $238 per person.

Nearly $580m was spent in the country's six casinos, four of which had record years. And $350m was spent on sports and racing betting, which had the most growth out of any part of the industry. DIA said this was because of successful marketing campaigns around the Football World Cup and other events, and growth in online betting.

Professor Max Abbott, director of AUT's Gambling and Addictions Research Centre, said the amount of money being gambled by New Zealanders had fallen by about 20 per cent in 15 years. Yet over that time, the levels of gambling-related harm had remained steady.

This was because a large number of problem gamblers relapsed, Abbott said. Half to two-thirds of current problem gamblers were people who had broken their habit before slipping back into it.

The stubborn rate of problem gambling was also partly driven by migrants from countries like China or the Pacific Islands who had not been exposed to gambling in the past and were more vulnerable to addiction.

Community groups also remain heavily dependent on gambling revenues. Just under $750m of last year's gambling expenditure went back into the community, and around $300m of it went to community organisations to support sports teams, health and education initiatives, and other activities.

As gambling revenue gradually falls, there are concerns about how these organisations will be funded in future. The previous Government began a review of this issue, which included looking at alternative forms of funding. That has stalled after the change of Government.

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There is one gap in the latest DIA data - they do not show any spending on offshore online gambling by New Zealanders, like virtual poker sites or video games which have a spending component.

This growing sector worries the Government, because there is no oversight of offshore websites, they are not required to return money to the community, and they have no harm minimisation measures.

Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin is expected to release a discussion paper on regulating gambling websites in April.

Abbott said the estimated spend on online gambling in New Zealand was still relatively low, at between $15m and $50m. But unlike all other parts of the sector, it was believed to be growing rapidly.


GAMBLING IN NZ, 2017/18
• Total spend: $2.38b
$350m on TAB racing and sports betting (up 3.6%)
$561m on NZ lotteries (up 1.1%)
$895m on non-casino gaming machines (up 2.9%)
$578m in casinos (up 1.1%)
What could $2.38b pay for?
• Most of the Auckland City Rail Link ($3.4b)
• Nearly the entire social housing budget for a year ($2.6b)
(Department of Internal Affairs)