There’s another health crisis looming – what happens when the pokies switch back on?


Marisa Paterson, Australian National University

When the COVID-19 restrictions came into force more than two months ago, it meant lights out for the country’s 200,000 poker machines.

Now, the pokies are slowly turning on again across the country. This week, NSW became the first state to allow venues to reopen, with certain rules mandating patrons keep 1.5 metres apart.

While the health risks certainly need to be considered, there appears to be little to no thought being given to managing the risks of gambling harm that might come from restarting the machines after such an extensive break.

The economic recession and massive job losses make the situation even more worrisome. We know when people experience financial hardship, they are more likely to gamble. And at-risk gamblers, particularly, are more likely to experience significant financial hardship over the long-term.

Read more:
15 things you should know about Australia’s love affair with pokies

A compulsory break from gambling

When clubs, casinos and hotels were shuttered in late March, there were fears that “pokie” players could transition to online forms of gambling.

We have limited evidence, so far, as to the actual uptake of other forms of gambling during the lockdown. However, a survey of gamblers conducted in the ACT last year found that only 0.8% of gamblers engaged in offshore casino or pokie gambling.

Research in NSW has also found that only 2.3% of 18- to 24-year-olds played internet casino games and just 0.8% played online poker. These percentage decreased among older age brackets.

One of the main reasons is that online casino and poker machine gambling is illegal in Australia.

Read more:
With pokies shut down, coronavirus stress could drive more people to reckless online gambling

So, for your average Australian pokie player, the current closure of pokie venues is a compulsory break – a time when the constant “do I” or “don’t I” debate in people’s minds is temporarily suspended.

There will be many pokie players who will take this opportunity to turn their backs on the machines once and for all.

What if alcohol sales had been banned – and then reintroduced?

Although figures differ marginally across jurisdictions, approximately 10% of the adult population in Australia could be considered to be an at-risk or problem gambler.

Further to this, one in three people who play EGMs expand at first ref are considered at-risk or problem gamblers gamblers. This is assessed consistently across states using the Problem Gambling Severity Index, which asks questions such as, “have you felt you might have a problem with gambling?” and “has gambling caused financial problems for you or your household?”

Pre-COVID-19 analysis conducted by the ANU Centre for Gambling Research found that problem gamblers experience significantly worse social and economic outcomes than people without gambling problems – and these poorer outcomes are long-term.

Read more:
New research shows pokie operators are not nearly as charitable as they claim

On top of this, the isolation and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has triggered or exacerbated many mental health problems in our communities, particularly among at-risk gamblers.

This is why the reopening of venue doors is of such concern – it could result in the unleashing of months of pent-up angst for at-risk gamblers. Governments need to be thinking about harm reduction strategies now.

If alcohol purchases had been restricted during the lock-down period, for example, it would be reasonable to assume that harm-minimisation strategies would need to be put in place to manage the reintroduction of alcohol.

This is no different to the reintroduction of pokies.

Recommendations for minimising harm

As a result of COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, there will likely be requirements on venues to enforce social distancing (as in NSW) or limit the time patrons can spend on one machine or in the venue.

Restricting session time on machines to a maximum of one hour, for example, would help reduce gambling harm. We know from the 2019 ACT gambling survey that people who typically spend one hour or more in a single session are more likely to be at-risk gamblers.

Other suggestions to minimise gambling harm when restarting machines include:

  • public information campaigns detailing the risks associated with EGM play. This would assist people to make informed choices about whether to play again and what that means for their lives

  • more counselling and financial services support to help people who have effectively “self-excluded” from gambling during the shutdown to continue to do so. Research in ACT has found the vast majority of people (90%) who have gambled in the past 12 months wanted support to cut back or stop

  • regulators need to be extra vigilant around inducements and advertising that will be used by venues to bring gamblers back. We need to ensure this isn’t predatory.

This is a golden opportunity for state and territory governments to provide support to clubs to diversify their business models and reduce the numbers of machines on their premises.

It will also be crucial to monitor the harm when the machines come back on. Most jurisdictions have recently conducted gambling prevalence surveys, and there should be a staged data collection process to monitor any trends in behaviour.

The gambling industry sector in all the other states and territories will likely lobby governments hard to reopen soon. And governments will likely be eager to see the revenue stream of EGM taxation begin flowing again.

However, without the implementation of substantial harm-minimisation strategies to manage the re-introduction of pokies in our communities, we will likely see a significant increase in gambling harm in Australia.The Conversation

Marisa Paterson, Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘No pokies’ Xenophon goes for ‘some pokies’, but does his gambling policy go far enough?

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The evidence behind Nick Xenophon’s proposed gambling reforms in South Australia is reasonably strong.
AAP/Morgan Sette

Charles Livingstone, Monash University

SA-Best, led by high-profile former senator Nick Xenophon, has announced its gambling policy ahead of next month’s South Australian election. Xenophon has backed away from the “no pokies” policy that characterised his earlier approach to gambling reform. However, the evidence behind his party’s proposed suite of measures is reasonably strong.

What’s in the policy?

Key aspects of SA-Best’s proposal are:

  • a five-year plan to cut poker machines numbers in South Australia from 12,100 to 8,100;

  • a reduction in maximum bets to A$1, from the current $5;

  • a reduction in maximum prizes from $10,000 to $500;

  • removing particularly addictive features such as “losses disguised as wins”;

  • prohibition of political donations from gambling businesses; and

  • the removal of EFTPOS facilities from gambling venues.

The policy would also empower the state’s Independent Gambling Authority to implement and evaluate these proposals.

The policy is targeted at commercial hotel operators; clubs, “community hotels” and the casino are exempt from the reduction provisions.

There are also proposals to cut trading hours from 18 to 16 per day, with the introduction of a seven-year pokie licence for venues, from January 1, 2019. Increased resources would go to counselling and support for those with gambling problems.

Notably absent from the policy is the introduction of a pre-commitment system, which would enable pokie users to decide in advance how much they want to spend. Along with $1 maximum bets, this was a key recommendation of a Productivity Commission inquiry in 2010.

The policy has attracted the expected response from the gambling industry. The Australian Hotels Association argued the changes would “rip the guts” out of the gambling industry and attack the “26,000 jobs” it claims the industry directly creates.

Does evidence support SA Best’s policies?

We’ve known for some time that reducing maximum bets is likely to reduce the amount wagered by people experiencing severe gambling problems. This in turn reduces the harm they suffer.

Read more:
A $1 maximum bet on pokies would reduce gambling harm

Reducing maximum prizes reduces “volatility”, meaning pokies may have more consistent loss rates.

Reducing access to pokies is also an important intervention, since easy access is a key risk factor for developing a gambling problem. Reducing the number of machines, and the hours they are accessible, support this.

Read more:
Too close to home: people who live near pokie venues at risk

However, very substantial cuts in pokie numbers are needed to meaningfully reduce harm. A cut of the magnitude SA-Best proposes may not be sufficient to prevent those with serious gambling habits from readily accessing pokies. This is because pokies are rarely fully utilised at all times of the week.

Removing easy access to cash has also been identified as an important harm-reduction intervention. This had a positive initial effect in Victoria (especially among high-risk gamblers), when ATMs were removed from pokie venues in 2012.

The harms associated with gambling generally affect far more people than just the gambler. The most recent study, from 2012 indicates that 0.6% of the SA adult population is classified as at high risk of gambling harm, 2.5% are classified as at moderate risk, and another 7.1% at low risk.

Based on census data, this equates to about 8,000 South Australians experiencing severe harm from gambling. Another 33,100 are experiencing significant harm, and about 94,000 are experiencing some harm.

However, each high-risk gambler affects six others; each moderate-risk gambler affects three others; and each low-risk gambler one other. So, the problems of each high-risk gambler affect another 47,660 South Australians. These are children, spouses, other relatives, friends, employers, the general community via the costs of crime, and so on.

Another 99,300 are affected by moderate-risk gambling, and another 94,000 by low-risk gambling. All up, this amounts to 241,000 people.

Of these, 190,000 are affected at high or significant levels. These harms include financial disaster and bankruptcy, divorce or separation, neglect of children, intimate partner violence and other violent crime, crimes against property, mental and physical ill-health, and in some cases, suicide.

Most gambling problems (around 75%) are related to pokies, and by far the greatest expenditure goes through them. Nothing has changed in this regard since the Productivity Commission identified this in 2010.

In this context, SA-Best’s policy has substantial justification.

Read more:
Removing pokies from Tasmania’s clubs and pubs would help gamblers without hurting the economy

Does it go far enough?

The South Australian Greens, like their counterparts in Tasmania and the Tasmanian Labor Party, want to get all pokies out of pubs and clubs. They argue gambling’s social and economic costs are far in excess of the benefits.

For Tasmania, the costs of gambling can be estimated at about $342 million per year. This is more than three times as much as the total tax take from all gambling in the state.

A similar calculation for South Australia suggests its overall costs of problem gambling are more than $1.6 billion per year. This is more than four times the total taxes from gambling the South Australian government derived in 2015-16 ($380.3 million).

With a cost-benefit ratio like that, some strong measures could well be called for. Xenophon says the proposals encapsulated in his party’s policy are the start. However, Tasmanian Labor has set the new benchmark for pokie regulation – removing them entirely from pubs and clubs.

It is remarkable that a party traditionally in lockstep with – and substantially supported by – the gambling industry has adopted such a position. Perhaps the harms have become too much to ignore?

The ConversationHow these policies might be implemented, amid the resistance they will face from a well-heeled and often-influential gambling industry, presents an intriguing prospect over coming months.

Charles Livingstone, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.