Taming the pokies


Poker machinePoker machines cause and profit from problem gambling. These are unequivocal facts established by solid research and the Productivity Commission.

The Federal Government is looking at options to make poker machines safer. The proposed measures will give back choice to many people lost in the hypnotic 'zone' of the machines. They will require gamblers to nominate their loss level before they gamble.

The gaming industry is clearly threatened by these mandatory pre-commitment measures. Clubs Australia has embarked on a marginal seat campaign opposing them, and a new advertising campaign aimed at misleading the public will screen at NRL games for the remainder of the season.

Clubs Australia says it doesn't want one dollar from problem gamblers. This claim is disingenuous at best. The Productivity Commission concluded that 60 per cent of total losses from poker machines come from problem and at risk gamblers. This amounts to over $7 billion a year.

The Commission found that 30 per cent of regular poker machine users are problem and at risk gamblers. This is a conservative figure as it also found that gambling problems and spending are under-reported in surveys. For every problem gambler up to 10 other people are directly affected, and revenue is leached from local businesses and communities, usually in less affluent areas.

Importantly, the Commission established that poker machines are a dangerous product in need of greater regulation to make them safer for users. It recommended that poker machine gamblers use 'pre-commitment' measures, where gamblers decide in advance how much they are willing to lose.

A two-track system proposes pre-commitment measures for gamblers using high intensity (high spending) machines and no pre-commitment measures for lower intensity machines. Pre-commitment has been shown to work in trials in two Australian states, as long as it is compulsory.

Implementing these measures would be relatively cheap, especially as a proportion of poker machine profit. It would simply involve reprogramming the machines, which are, after all, computers. In fact the technology is already largely in place with industry loyalty cards. So what's all the fuss about?

Perhaps the real fear is that the measures will work. They will reduce revenue from problem gamblers and clubs will feel it in their hip pocket. This business model relies on people losing control of their gambling and the resulting family breakdown, divorce, child neglect, post-retirement poverty and even suicide. This model is unsustainable on economic and ethical grounds.

Clubs Australia is hiding behind the wellbeing of families and children as they fight to keep this money acquired on the backs of the misery of vulnerable addicts.

The hidden army of people whose lives have been devastated by this dangerous product will not be seen marching together on the streets for change. Nor do they have a kitty of millions of dollars to speak truth to power in the public domain. This money has long filtered to poker machine businesses, where it is being used to fight product safety regulation.

Local clubs can be a wonderful asset for people and communities. I'm not talking about multi-million dollar businesses masquerading as clubs, but those small local organisations that exist because of the goodwill of everyone involved.

For my own part, my son has had the benefit of a wonderful sporting club while growing up, supported by volunteers and mentored by the best. I am eternally grateful to this club for being part of the village that raised my child. But I am especially grateful that not one person died, not one family broke down and not one child was neglected to pay for his footy jumper and boots.

Dr Jennifer Borrell, gambling researcher and author.

Topic tags: Jennifer Borrel, Clubs Australia, poker machines, Productivity Commission, mandatory pre-commitment



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Existing comments

Poker machines are an eyesore in many of the pubs today. All atmosphere of a nice cosy local pub and restaurant has gone. Jo Bjelke Petersen was right to ban poker machines Instead some of the nice reataurants and private bars have closed down to make room for more poker machines. They ruin communities.

Trent | 25 July 2011  

Gambling! Is 'gambling' the problem or is it the slavish high regard the 'free market' is held in?

Capitalism and free markets are all the rage, and unquestionable.

But 'gambling' is just another angle of capitalism and free markets.

Why hound 'gambling' and allow the very process that encourages it to flourish to go unquestioned?

There are many revolting aspects and expressions of capitalism-unchecked and the God-like status the free market has been awarded.

By all means, let us throw out poker machines, on-line poker and online gambling in general, horse racing betting, the whole lot can go as far as I am concerned, all wasteful, all highly praised by our political leaders and financial gurus.

But, hang on, why not question the mechanisms that allow, encourage, promote and absolve such arrangements?

Harold Wilson | 25 July 2011  

I had dinner at the local Catholic Club recently; afterwards I took a walk through the extensive and manically active ‘hypnotic zone’.

All gamblers, it seems, are problem gamblers. All bottom line focussed organizations are more than happy to reap a benefit from the row upon row of electronically burbling dragon’s teeth sown in their plush lounges.

Ah yes, but this is a Catholic Club so everything must be honest and above board. Have faith in the machines to give a fair return, hope for a win sometimes [God only knows when], pray for charity [from Vinnies or CentreLink] when tomorrows dinner disappears into the guts of the hungry machine.

Do we care? Of course we do – there is a special help line phone number on the wall… and don’t forget we provide a local bus to get people in to the club and to take them home when they are stony broke, we subsidise members meals, and make generous donations to our parishes.

‘We are good, we are honourable, we are a bunch of hypocrites’.

Dermott Ryder | 25 July 2011  

Brilliant article - followed by some very perceptive comments.

I'm indebted to Australian Marxist author Frank Hardy for the following sweeping generalisation, which however still makes a lot of sense today:

"Under the system once known as capitalism, now known as western democracy, gambling flourishes among the poorer classes. The middle classes gamble much less, for they feel they have some security, and gamblers are still less among the upper classes, except on the stock exchange. A poor man, whose wages are often insufficient for his simplest needs and who lives under the threat of unemployment, usually turns to gambling in the desperate hope of increasing his earnings."
(The Four-Legged Lottery, p 75)
"desperate hope" can become an obsession for some people (It would seem to be about a third of gamblers) and when they take a punt, in whatever form, they tend to continue gambling compulsively, driven on by "desperate hope", and the occasional tit-bit of a win that gives them an adrenalin rush and the false belief that a big win is getting closer.

Such people (and their families) need to be protected.
Pre-commitment seems a small inconvenience in order to avert a social disaster.

Uncle Pat | 25 July 2011  

Aren't we all adults able to make our own choices about whether we gamble or not? Apparently all the do - gooders think otherwise and seek to impose themselves upon us once again. Don't you just get sick and tired of the nanny state treating you like this?

noel | 25 July 2011  

Pokies cannot even be regarded as a genuine gamble in the same sense as betting on horses racing or sports. At least with betting, the gambler knows the odds. Poker machines are deceptive devices controlled by computer software programmed to take people's money. They push out a few wins now and again to get people hooked, and all the rest is done with flashing lights, bells and whistles.They should be made illegal not because of the gambling aspect, but because they are just plain money chewers.

AURELIUS | 25 July 2011  

Thanks, Jennifer. Beautifully reasonable and factual. Keep up the good work.

john fox | 25 July 2011  

I am puzzled. If Clubs Australie din't want a dollar of any problem gambler, why are they so vehemently opposed to the proposed measures? Why don't they develop a business model that is not reliant on problem gambling? Their silence is deafening!

deejay | 25 July 2011  

What's all the full about indeed, except for the fear of loosing profit, which if it comes at the dire expence of family breakdown, divorce, child neglet, post-retirement poverty and suicide is completely immoral and if anything at all can be done to lessen the danger, then it is high time the Federal Government did something about it.

Maria Prestinenzi | 26 July 2011  

I believe the issue of problem gambling is exaggerated. The benefits of poker machines outweigh the disadvantages. Poker machine clubs provide good social meeting places for people as well as activities such as bowls, squash, snooker and bridge. Poker machines are also a good source of revenue for state governments. My only criticism of poker machine venues is that the state governments should have restricted them to non-profit entities. The reason that a few people become problem gamblers is a lack of discipline. The campaign by 'do-gooders' such as Tim Costello, Nick Xenophon and Andrew Wilkie reminds me of the wowsers and temperance society of the early 20th century.

Mark Doyle | 28 July 2011  

Can the likes of Mark Doyle seriously believe that addicts of any habit are still capable of rational choce?

However I guess we must tolerate such ignorance given we must accept that our Bishop in N/Qld who would be well aware of the support given to addicts families by Vinnies ,yet happily continues to apply for cash grants from the State Govt Gaming fund (part of tax revenue from machine profits ).Then again the S Govt would be well aware of the cost of providing welfare etc to the dysfunctional victims families .

John Kersh | 31 July 2011  

Poker machines have destroyed my life and also have had a follow on effect to my loved ones. I am not on Centrelink or any welfare payment,i have never had any sort of addiction before, dont drink or do drugs.But they are all i can think of and all i dream about, it makes me sick to my soul, and i have attended counselling and still do. Nothing works at all. Everyone thinks i should have the strength to stop, i wish it was so easy.

Erina Marupo | 12 August 2011  

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