There are growing calls to overhaul how poker machines operate, with concerns the industry will prey on the newly unemployed, creating a fresh generation of gambling addicts.
New South Wales will be the first state to switch on poker machines this Monday, with up to 50 people allowed back into clubs and pubs.
Alliance for Gambling Reform chief advocate Reverend Tim Costello said opening the machines without restrictions would leave Premier Gladys Berejiklian “another Ruby Princess on her hands”.
“We have seen some tremendous leadership from the NSW Government through this crisis, and Premier Berejiklian has wisely sought and taken advice from public health experts,” Reverend Costello said.
“It’s impossible to calculate how many lives have been saved through these measures, but it’s undoubtedly been a significant number, while we still have sadly had 102 deaths in Australia.
“Unfortunately, we know there are around 400 deaths by suicide every year where gambling harm has been a factor, along with the other public health issues often associated with gambling harm, including family violence, mental ill-health and homelessness.”
Reverend Costello said anti-gambling groups have been encouraging the NSW government to heed the advice of public health and other experts, and “act now to prevent what could be a tsunami of gambling harm if Clubs NSW is allowed to proceed with restarting machines in NSW on 1 June”.
“If she doesn’t, Ms Berejiklian risks having another Ruby Princess on her hands – a gambling one,” he said.
The closure of the multi-dollar poker machine industry has helped save Australians an estimated $1.5 billion from gambling losses, according to the alliance.
Australia has a poker machine problem. We have nearly 200,000 machines, and one in six people who play has a serious addiction – each losing an average of about $21,000 a year – according to government data.
The social cost of gambling addiction is huge. In Victoria, the only state to study gambling’s broader impact on society, it was estimated to be at least $7 billion a year.
Ben Hamilton is part of that one-in-six. He started gambling at 18 and it took him almost 10 years to kick the addiction. For the first time in his adult life, Mr Hamilton felt safe this year – thanks to lockdown measures.
“Coming into COVID-19, I was in a fairly decent place with my gambling, but it’s the first time I’ve ever felt fully safe since being an adult, knowing I can’t gamble,” he said.
“If I have an argument with my wife or a job gets a bit tricky, that’s where I want to go [to the pokies], but that option is just not available. COVID-19, as horrible as it’s been, is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
A former soldier turned tradesman, Mr Hamilton initially didn’t realise he had a problem. Like many Australians he thought he just enjoyed splashing some of his extra cash on the machines on a Friday night.
“It starts off when you win money. It feeds the reward system of the brain and then, when you lose, it becomes a challenge, it gets competitive. It continuously evolves,” he said.
“Then it gets to a point where the money is irrelevant. What’s important is being in front of the machine.”
After meeting his now-wife, he realised how bad his gambling had become.
He was in pain. The addiction was spiralling out of control – and so, too, Mr Hamilton’s mental health.
Around 18 months ago he was out drinking, feeding hundreds of dollars into the machines. On the drive between clubs, Mr Hamilton drove his car off the road.
“I was coming down this steep hill, there’s a big embankment, I just let my car go off it with the intention to hurt myself,” he said.
It was the bolt Mr Hamilton needed to pull himself out of addiction. Now he has started a Facebook group, Kicking the Punt – a safe place online to help others wrestling with their gambling problems.
Mr Hamilton fears turning the pokies back on and returning to business-as-usual would see people flock back to the machines.
“I think there will be a big influx of people gambling,” he said.
“There will be a lot of people coming out of this in a rough spot, financially. They’ve been isolated. You put all that in the mix and open up the venues and they’ll play the pokies to let off steam.
“They might not be gamblers already but they’ll be vulnerable. It’ll be huge.”
Proponents of turning the machines back on say it will help us kick start the economy, but Alliance for Gambling Reform executive director Tony Mohr said that was poor economics.
“For every million dollars that is spent on poker-machine gambling, only about three jobs are created,” Mr Mohr said.
“For every million dollars spent in the rest of hospitality – the front bar and restaurants – it’s about 20 jobs.”
Accepting the machines will go back on, he said there needed to be reform – limiting the operating hours and banning things like loyalty programs.
“I think we’ve missed that main opportunity, but we do have an opportunity to reduce it by doing simple things that don’t require changing a law,” Mr Mohr said.
“Just reducing operating hours of poker machine venues. You can have it running at 2am in the morning. That’s not helping anyone recover on COVID, that’s just there to extract money.”