To some, having an occasional spin of the pokies is a bit of fun and something to do when out drinking or with friends.
However, the pokies are more than just a game.
Nearly 100,000 Australians lose an average of $21,000 a year from playing the pokies.
For these people, playing the pokies is beyond being just a recreational activity; becoming an uncontrollable compulsion affecting their every day lives.
Now here is the scary truth.
In 2011, Australians are the worst gamblers in the world per capita and lose over $20 billion dollars annually on gambling.
Gambling therapist and researcher Sue Bertossa from Statewide Gambling Services routinely sees addicted gamblers who are no longer able to control their impulses.
“Normally at the point where someone walks into a service like this, gambling has devastated their lives,” Sue says.
“They may no longer have any family members or be in conflict with their family or their friends, so they have often become really, really isolated.”:
The face of gambling in Australia is changing, with online gambling gaining in popularity as well as poker machines appearing in increasing numbers.
“In a way gambling affects people from all walks of life,” Sue says.
“We find that a gambler might be someone who is 18 and out of work, or it might be a businessman, or it might be an 85-year-old grandmother who is caught up in gambling.”
Michael* works at a pokies venue in Adelaide and he has seen gambling take over many people’s lives – even witnessing customers queuing in the morning to access a particular machine.
“Some customers would sit at one machine for an entire day,” Michael says.
“They couldn’t even take a long enough break from the machines to finish a cigarette.’
“I have also heard at the bigger venues in Sydney, customers become so attached to their machine that they don’t even get up to use the bathroom and have urinated on the carpet.”
However, Tracey Schumacher from Clubs SA says that 99 per cent of people gamble responsibly and gaming staff are legally obliged to intervene when someone is of concern.
“At each venue there are requirements that if a staff member sees someone at a gaming venue who is having difficulties, it’s not just their moral responsibility but the legal responsibility that they have to approach that person and give that person some information to go and get help,” Tracey says.
Unfortunately, many addicted gamblers either do not want to stop gambling or are unable to access the help that they need.
Recent studies show that the groups that are most at risk of forming an addiction are Indigenous Australians, migrants and the mentally ill.
Sue Bertossa says that a lot of her clients become addicted to gambling due to feelings of loneliness and isolation in the community, and see gambling as a way to solve their financial problems.
From the $12 billion in revenue that clubs and hotels make from pokies per year, 40 per cent of losses come from the pockets of addicted gamblers, who are often vulnerable Australians.
It is for this reason that No Pokies MP Nick Xenophon has been fighting for the abolishment of poker machines in Australian clubs and hotels for over a decade.
“Shortly after pokies were introduced in mid-1994 I started hearing hard luck stories from people who were affected by them; small businesses who weren’t able to compete with the cheap pokies meals, by people who had lost their savings, by people who had lost their marriages,” Nick says.
“The tipping point for me was when a brain-injured client lost almost all of an emergency superannuation payment of $30,000 on pokies and broke down in my office and told me about it.”
Nick Xenophon strongly believes that the Australian government’s recently proposed reforms will control the financial loss experienced by addicted gamblers.
“If you reduce the losses with a smaller jackpot, such as a $500 jackpot with a $1 maximum spin, you can still lose an average of $120 per hour,” Nick says, “but that is much, much better that the $1200 per hour or the $2000, $3000 per hour that you can currently lose on existing poker machines.”
“That will mean that the clubs will still be profitable but they won’t rely so heavily on addicted gamblers.’
“It also means that it is less likely that you will have new generations of addicted gamblers and people getting hooked in the first place.”
Recent data from the Productivity Commission shows that problem gamblers frequently use the ATM machines in venues to chase their losses, while recreational gamblers do not.
The proposed ATM and maximum bet restrictions are aimed at problem gamblers only and will not affect ordinary Australians, like the gaming industry’s recently cut ad campaign suggested.
“The actor in that campaign was a paid actor and said the reason he did that ad was because he lost so much money on poker machines anyway,” Nick says.
“So really, they can’t get an actor to act in their ad campaign who hasn’t been hurt by poker machines.’
“As far as I’m concerned they can spend $400 million dollars because the reason that they will lose in the end is because most Australians know someone who has been hurt by poker machine addiction.”
The Gambling Helpline is 1800 858 858.
* Name has been changed.