Loss-limiting cards or low-impact pokies. The industry must choose one.
She is a close family friend and had not gambled for more than two years. Yet, after a personal crisis, she found herself at her nearest pokies club. She blew $1300 – her whole two-week pay packet – in a couple of hours. Yes, she is personally responsible – despite the club allowing her take the money out of her account to keep playing. But her case does highlight how we should regulate a dangerous product – poker machines.
Whenever I raise questions about the high impact of pokies, I am attacked as a wowser wanting a nanny state. I have even been told I am ”un-Australian”. I am told that it is simply a free choice of a few sad individuals and the industry already does enough to protect them.
For the record, I have never been a prohibitionist, so it is intriguing now to see a hysterical $20 million hotels and clubs campaign – just to defeat a sensible federal government change.
The government’s proposal is to require players to set loss limits before they start playing. Once over that limit, they are locked out of further play from all machines. It gives them back control by forcing them to not just chase their losses or believe they are just one win away from not having a problem. Clubs and pubs know that 40 per cent of their revenue comes from problem gamblers (the finding of the Productivity Commission) and do not want their revenues affected by giving players more control.
It is always hard to do the right thing when so much easy money is at stake, but at last we have a real political opportunity. Public opinion is overwhelming. People hate the social carnage of the pokies and see the damage. They saw it well before the Victorian government verified it. The Victorian Justice Department found last year that pokies were the second-greatest contributor to crime in the community, eclipsed only by heroin. Innocent people are being hurt by the pokies.
This is not an argument about clubs or pubs as great community places for recreation and entertainment. This is an argument about an inherently dangerous product that can be made safer just as compulsory seatbelts made cars safer. It is not an argument about the freedom of the individual to play. Pokies will always be a legal adult recreation. It is an argument about the right of pubs and clubs to prey on addiction.
Imagine the outcry if the alcohol industry got 40 per cent of its profits from alcoholics? Clubs need to develop a different business model that does not depend on addicts and the ripple effects of crime and family suffering. That is the argument a club must face when it says it is a responsible community group.
What this $20 million clubs’ spin campaign will not tell you is that Australia has 20.4 per cent of all the world’s high-impact pokies. Clubs are desperate to keep these high-volatility, high-impact machines because they make quick money from addicts. They do not want the low-impact, safer machines as in Britain and most other places.
So the political compromise is a compulsory loss-limit card proposed by independent Andrew Wilkie and the Gillard government. A card curtails the damage and recognises that we have more dangerous pokies per capita than anywhere else.
If clubs insist that a compulsory commitment card is costly and intrusive, then there is an alternative. Britain’s clubs allow a 50-pence bet with a maximum payout of £50. They are much safer and no card is needed.
Research shows that these low-impact British pokies significantly reduce problem gambling and are not even noticed by the recreational punter/pensioner who enjoys a flutter. Put simply, a lottery with a prize of $50 million induces many to risk large amounts because of the big dream, but hardly anyone wins. A prize of $500 sees far fewer gamble large amounts but many more win something small.
Clubs and pubs want it all. To keep their high-impact pokies, they fight the government’s compulsory limits card – that locks players out once they cross their own set limits – as an intrusion on individual freedom. They reject the alternative of 50¢ plays and a maximum prize of, say, $500 that needs no card. They cannot go on refusing both options and spinning myths in the face of the social cost.
The original Opinion Piece was published on the Age website here Clubs are addicted to a jackpot they refuse to relinquish and generated many comments.