Poker machine profits surged during COVID-19 from gamblers on stimulus payments, leading advocates to call for greater reform.
Gamblers across NSW lost $2.17 billion to gaming machines from June to November 2020 - the biggest year-on-year increase in four years of data from Liquor and Gaming NSW according to data obtained exclusively by the ABC.
Clubs in Western Sydney accounted for a third of net profits on poker machines: gamblers in the Fairfield local government area (LGA) lost $197 million while those in Canterbury-Bankstown lost $187 million.
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The statewide surge in poker machine profits is a 7% increase on the year before, and coincides with NSW clubs reopening in June after a 10-week industry closure due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
Chief advocate for the Alliance of Gambling Reform, Reverend Tim Costello, said while rates of gambling increase during times of crisis, these figures make it obvious the gambling industry is taking advantage of low-income areas.
"Addiction only intensifies in crisis but the shock in these figures is Western Sydney losses," Rev Costello told Savings.com.au.
"This is the gambling industry preying on the poorest postcodes as that is where the pokies are most ubiquitous. Not in Woollahra.
"Why does NSW have 10% of the world's pokies? Pokies licences are a state licence and their infestation in the poorest areas is profound policy failure as the state exists to protect the vulnerable."
Rev Costello said one factor behind the bounce could be thanks to an increase in government stimulus payments like JobKeeper and JobSeeker, as well as people out of work turning to gambling to self soothe.
"We certainly have concerns that some people did use early access super and other forms of emergency payments to gamble," Rev Costello said.
"This was inevitable given the stresses people were under what is known about gambling in times of crisis, and is yet another example of why it is imperative state governments take action to reduce the risk of gambling harm at all times, and especially during and post-crises.
"People seek quick solutions to problems that are causing them stress, and for some people gambling is seen as a quick way to resolve financial problems, when it invariably makes them worse.
"The way poker machines are designed also makes them appealing to stressed people -- they are designed to lull people into an almost meditative state, which can be soothing for some, but is also why they can be so addictive."
It was a similar story in Victoria, which saw a surge in poker machine losses once restrictions eased.
Data from the Alliance for Gambling Reform shows around $1.5 million more was lost on poker machines across Victoria in December 2020 compared with December 2019.
The Brimbank LGA recorded a spike of almost double the entire Victorian increase - a leap of $2.7 million in losses compared to December 2019, which equals a 23% increase in losses in December 2020.
Gamblers in Greater Dandenong and Hume lost $1.6 million and $1.5 million respectively, while gamblers in Darebin lost $940,000.
Rev Costello said the increases in gaming machine profits during COVID were hugely concerning and showed how important it was for reduced poker machine operating hours.
“Communities like Brimbank cannot sustain these kinds of losses,” Rev Costello said.
“These are stressed communities being exploited by the gambling industry, at a time when local families and businesses are trying to recover from months of lockdown.
“In November, when there were restrictions on poker machine operating hours and other limits, we saw a reduction in daily losses. That was a real time, real life experiment showing that gambling harm is reduced when opening hours are shortened."
In September, 13 councils wrote an open letter to Premier Daniel Andrews requesting poker machines to be closed between midnight and 10am when COVID restrictions eased.
"This is a sensible and relatively easy reform that will have a huge impact on gambling harm," Rev Costello said.
"November’s data shows us that reduced hours do work on lowering losses, and reducing gambling harm.
“It’s simply absurd that Victoria has the worst pokies opening hours in Australia at 20 hours a day."
10% increase in gambling doubles risk of missing mortgage repayment
A new research paper, Nature Human Behaviour, based on seven years of anonymised bank data has revealed that gambling harm rates are far higher than previous research has found.
The UK study found that some gamblers are spending up to a third of their income on gambling, and that an increased spend on gambling led to reduced spending on education, travel, self-care, fitness and, worryingly, filling prescriptions.
Rev Costello said it was fair to assume the UK numbers would be applicable to Australia, and perhaps are even higher here.
The sad reality is that Australians are the world’s biggest gamblers, so it is well within the realms of possibility to suggest the impact of gambling harm would be much higher here than these UK figures reveal, and these figures are already bad enough,” Rev Costello said.
“I hope Australian banks will follow suit and offer their own anonymised data. They have nothing to lose in sharing this data with researchers, and they‘d be performing a public service in doing so.”
The research also found that even a 10% increase in gambling almost doubled the risk of a person missing a mortgage repayment.
Rev Costello said this goes against the conventional wisdom that only heavy gamblers experience harm, and that even small amounts of gambling can be incredibly harmful.
“It really is time our governments woke up to how important a public health issue gambling harm is,” he said.
“Some serious action is needed, and needed now.”
Gambling reform advocate Anna Bardsley, who lost ten years of her life to poker machines, said it was imperative that governments learn from the pandemic.
“I’ve recently spoken to a gambling counsellor who had a client saving up for a bathroom renovation while the pokies were shut down. They saved $20,000 for that renovation with pokies off, and lost it all almost as soon as those awful, addictive, predatory machines came back on,” Ms Bardsley said.
“I’ve been in poker machine rooms in the early hours of the morning. I can tell you, no one is having fun at 3am there. It’s a sad place to be.
"Closing these rooms between midnight and 10am makes sense. The only argument to keep them open is for the gambling industry to exploit people.”
If you're struggling with gambling or are experiencing gambling harm, contact the Gamblers Helpline on 1800 858 858 or visit gamblershelp.com.au.
To talk to someone about your mental health, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.