The reopening of club and pub poker machines in New South Wales has astounded and horrified anti-gambling advocates, who predict a potential tsunami of gambling harm and other public health issues in the state.
Moving faster than other states to reopen its pokies, NSW this week ended the reprieve afforded to problem gamblers since the gaming machines were closed on March 23 (due to COVID-19 infection risks).
“No good is happening at a poker machine venue at 3am …” – Tim Costello
NSW has the highest number of poker machines in Australia, with almost 100,000 in operation.
Every other Australian state plans to keep them shuttered for at least another month.
Anti-gambling groups expressed grave concern at the lack of preparation by the NSW Government to manage the risks associated with people being exposed to gambling again, following the nine-week enforced break.
Wesley Mission CEO, Keith Garner, said switching off the pokies had saved people about $450 million in western Sydney alone.
“That’s a tremendous amount of money that will have been used to pay utility bills, rent and mortgages, and for other essentials, and supporting local businesses,” said Garner.
Wesley Mission has braced for a wave of requests for its gambling counselling services in Sydney, Wollongong, Central Coast and Newcastle.
“It’s difficult to fathom why pubs and clubs with gambling facilities will be allowed to have up to 500 people under one roof with poker machines on and taking money from people when, meanwhile, churches and other places of worship are forbidden from having more than 50 people gathered.”
Tim Costello, chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform, said he was horrified that poker machines were allowed to reopen without consideration for the reforms needed to reduce their harm.
“The NSW Government did a great job of minimising the health impacts of COVID-19 by wisely listening to public health experts. It’s time they did the same with gambling harm,” he said.
Costello recommended that the Government first reduce the “ridiculous” opening hours of poker machine venues, which currently stand at up to 18 hours per day.
“No good is happening at a poker machine venue at 3am, no real hospitality or socialising, and people coming off a period of ‘cold turkey’ since the shutdown will be extremely vulnerable to once again spending hours on machines specifically designed to addict them,” he said.
Second, he urged the government to ban any venue’s ‘loyalty programs’ connected with gambling, to minimise the risk of inducing vulnerable people back to gambling.
“Both of these changes are simple measures that can occur at a stroke of the Premier’s pen and they should be introduced as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Finally, Costello urged the introduction of $1 maximum bets to “dramatically slow the rate of poker machines losses, which can be as high as an astonishing $1200 an hour in NSW.”
“All these reforms have been repeatedly recommended by public health experts, gambling counsellors and even the Productivity Commission but ignored by governments.
“It’s time to enact them.”