The harmful machines that work for public good

Auckland Council richest suburbs benefit most from pokie machines, despite poorest suburbs spending the most on them.
Photo: PHOTO NZ

Pokie machines – or “class 4 gambling” – are the most common, and most lucrative, method of gambling in New Zealand.

The pokie machines in pubs and bars around the country take in nearly $1 billion each year – nearly twice what Lotto brings in.

And a substantial slice of that cash ends up being spread around the community: by law, 40 percent of the total take must be redistributed among community groups – money that sports clubs, schools and religious and social groups have come to rely on.

But that funding comes with a considerable social cost.

More and more councils are now adopting “sinking lid” policies – this means when a venue which hosts pokie machines closes down, authorities will not give consent for another to be established.

Nearly a third of the local councils in New Zealand have adopted such policies.

But with funding in short supply for these vital community groups – which are especially vulnerable to the Covid-19 pinch – there are fears drastic reform in the pokies space could leave them high, dry, and broke.

In today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks with Professor Peter Adams – deputy director of the University of Auckland’s school of public health, about how pokies and community grants became so interlinked, and whether that relationship has, over time, become too symbiotic.

Paradoxically, over the past five years, the number of venues hosting machines – and the number of pokie machines themselves – has declined markedly, by more than 10 percent.

However, more than half of those venues are in medium-high-to-high deprivation areas. Just seven percent are in wealthier areas.

And despite these declines, the gross amount New Zealanders lost on pokies has risen by more than $100 million from 2015 to 2019.

More than $300 million was distributed last year, to more than 12,000 community organisations.

But Professor Peter Adams says that creates an unhealthy relationship.

“You’re establishing for community groups, such as arts, sports organisations, charities … a long-term relationship with a source that is partially to do with fun, and partially to do with harm.

“Even though there are few people with problem gambling issues, they spend a hell of a lot more.

“So a lot of that money is coming from people who have an addictive relationship with gambling.”

The percentage of people in New Zealand who are problem gamblers varies according to source and severity, but it’s generally accepted between 1.5 and 2 percent of the population are medium-to-high-risk problem gamblers.

That number might sound small, but it still equates to tens of thousands of people.

But the fact remains: most people who play the pokies do so without harming anyone, and the proceeds – while morally questionable to some – allow thousands of organisations to contribute to the community.

Peter Adams says while he’s not fundamentally opposed to the idea of pokies money supporting charities and sports clubs, the reliance is too heavy, and more needs to be done to mitigate the harmful aspects of slot machines.