Australia gambles on move to tackle slot machine addicts

SYDNEY (AFP) - It's just after morning opening at Sydney's Randwick Labor Club and already a few regulars are at the slot machines, or "pokies" as they are better known, for a quiet flutter.

Electronic poker machines are the most popular form of betting in Australia, but concerns about problem gamblers have prompted the government to introduce reforms to help keep their spending under control.

"The big picture is we're becoming a nanny state," said Peter Bell, a retiree who likes playing the machines, just like he enjoys to bet on horse races.

He insists he is not a problem gambler.

"I spend a lot more money at the racetrack than I ever do at a poker machine," the 70-year-old jokes.

There are about 200,000 electronic gaming machines in Australia, with about 600,000 Australians playing them at least weekly, according to a Productivity Commission report released in 2010.

But concerned that 15 per cent of these players are problem gamblers whose money accounts for about 40 per cent of spending, the government has moved to encourage all players to "pre-commit" to a financial limit before they start so they don't over-spend.

Under legislation passed late in 2012, while the scheme will remain voluntary, poker machine manufacturers must put the new pre-commitment technology on all new machines by the end of 2014.

Warnings will also flash up on players' screens with messages questioning them along the lines of, "How long have you been playing?" and "Have you spent beyond your limits?"

The biggest clubs will also limit daily cash withdrawals from automatic teller machines to Aus$250 (S$319), although this will not apply to casinos.

Anti-gambling campaigners say the scheme does not go far enough, since played at high intensity, it is easy to lose Aus$1,500 or more an hour on a poker machine.

"We think it's next to useless," said Erin McMallum, whose Getup! organisation has been pushing for maximum bets to be dropped to one dollar, a move that would limit losses to about Aus$120 an hour.

"People don't voluntarily restrict themselves. Half the time they don't even realise they have a problem."

McMallum said problem gambling is widespread in Australia, with many stories of people losing their homes, their relationships and even family members to suicide.

"Australia does have quite a unique problem in relation to problem gambling addiction, especially to poker machines," she said.

"The machines here are prolific, they are exceptionally high loss, and you can find them almost anywhere - every club, pub, bar, casino. They are hard to avoid if you do happen to have an addiction."

The clubs industry, which derives revenue from the pokies, is also non-plussed by voluntary pre-commitment, with the executive director of Clubs Australia, Anthony Ball, saying players would be reluctant to use it.

"Let's remember, people are playing a poker machine for the same reason they might bet on a horse or play the lotteries - they want to win. It's a feeling of freedom, it's their recreation," he said.

"To get a card, to register brings a whole different feel to it."

Australians love a gamble, with the Melbourne Cup horse race known as "the race that stops a nation" and the national day to commemorate war dead, Anzac Day, known for its "two-up" betting on the toss of a coin.

"The punt is engrained in Australian culture," explains Ball.

Club membership is around 11.6 million people out of a population of around 23 million, and the industry says it employs 96,000, making an economic contribution of some Aus$7.2 billion each year.

What concerns Ball is that the national government has for the first time ever, with the voluntary pre-commitment legislation, "involved itself in the regulation of poker machines".

Ball said the technology would not be a "silver bullet" for problem gambling, and the government's plan for pre-commitment to be mandatory in the Canberra region as part of a trial will fail dismally.

"We think that mandatory pre-commitment will not help people - you don't give a problem gambler a gambling card, that doesn't work. It's like giving an alcoholic drinking tickets. It's a crazy thing to do," he said.

"We say you need to get to those people and take them away from the gambling environment and into an effective treatment regime."

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