Australians losing money and mind to slot machines

Of the 200,000 slot machines, some 93,000 are in the state of New South Wales. About 500,000 Australians are said to be problem gamblers or at risk of developing a problem.
Of the 200,000 slot machines, some 93,000 are in the state of New South Wales. About 500,000 Australians are said to be problem gamblers or at risk of developing a problem.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN PEARLMAN

Australia has 200,000 slot machines and A$11.6b was lost nationally on them in 2015

She is better known in Australia as a health policy academic but Professor Laurie Brown recently revealed an embarrassing secret: she lost A$230,000 (S$248,000) on slot machines after spending every second night at gambling venues.

Prof Brown, 58, from the University of Canberra, went public to expose the scourge of slot machines in Australia and show that problem gambling does not just affect those who are poorer or less educated.

She said she spent up to six hours at a time on slot machines, visiting thrice a week last year in a constant search for "a bigger hit". Sometimes, she told The Sunday Times, she lost as much as A$1,700 during her ventures to the machines at a local football club, where she would gamble until it closed at 4am.

"When I'm gambling, all rational thought disappears and I'm hyperfocused on the poker machine," she said. "I went in thinking it was free entertainment but it lures you in. You think you'll have a big win but the machine is there to take your money."

Australia has about 200,000 machines, with some 93,000 in the state of New South Wales, where there is roughly a machine for every 80 people. About A$11.6 billion was lost nationally on the machines in 2015 out of total gambling losses of A$22.7 billion, according to data compiled by the state of Queensland.

According to analysis by consultants H2 Gambling Capital published in The Economist, gamblers in Australia lose more per person than any other nation - about A$1,250 per person last year. Next on the list were Singapore, Ireland, Finland and the United States.

TRICKING THE MIND

The noises, the graphics and the visuals, the lure of big money through the features and the jackpots - they impact the reward centre of your brain. It is the same sort of process in your head as having cocaine or heroin.

PROF LAURIE BROWN, on her addiction.

An expert on gambling in Australia, Dr Charles Livingstone, of Monash University, said: "The reason why Australians spend so much and there is so much harm related to the machines is because they are so ubiquitous.

"Often, the machines are concentrated in areas where people are finding it tough. We are not innate gamblers but we have so many opportunities to gamble," he told The Sunday Times.

Dr Sally Gainsbury, from the University of Sydney, said slot machines in Australia were particularly accessible because they were located in local suburban clubs and pubs. In other countries such as Canada, she said, machines tend to be concentrated in casinos.

In Australia, only the state of Western Australia forbids machines to be placed in venues other than casinos.

This prevalence, she said, along with the ability to bet fast and continuously on slot machines, made them more likely to lead to gambling problems.

"First, it is the accessibility - when they are prevalent, it is more of a trigger for gamblers.

"Second, the reinforcement comes immediately - there is no stop and start," she said."There are constant wins, so it encourages people to keep gambling."

Analysts say states and territories have failed to control the sector as they rely heavily on slot machine taxes. About 500,000 Australians are said to be problem gamblers or at risk of developing a problem.

The state authorities have ignored a call by the federal government's Productivity Commission in 2010 to limit access to cash from ATMs in gambling venues and impose A$1 maximum bets - these are now A$10 in New South Wales and A$5 in Victoria.

Dr Livingstone said states should seek to lower the concentration of machines, which are often found in high numbers in areas where people are susceptible to gambling. He also said the states should impose rules on how machines are programmed.

Some machines, for example, allow bets on several rows simultaneously and show - via lights and bells - that a person has won, even if he won on only a row and lost overall.

Likening her addiction to a drug habit, Prof Brown said: "I don't know why I went back.

"The noises, the graphics and the visuals, the lure of big money through the features and the jackpots - they impact the reward centre of your brain. It is the same sort of process in your head as having cocaine or heroin."

She has tried to limit her access to money and signed up for a self-exclusion scheme to ban herself from venues with slot machines.

"I've been gambling-free for six months," she said. "The scary thing is that if I went in and started playing again, I could get into that same trouble."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Australians losing money and mind to slot machines'. Print Edition | Subscribe