Paying the price of gambling addiction in Australia

Slot machines are so popular in Australia that some people say all you have to do is step out of the house and they’ll grab your attention.

In turn, the men and women take turns recounting how their lives were ruined, relationships severed, or bank accounts drained when caught in a storm.

A man staring at the ceiling shamefacedly recounted his journey to “relapse” into gambling. A burly man’s voice trembled as he recalled the time he stole his son’s piggy bank to put money in slot machines. A woman hugs her cat tightly as she recounts how gambling has ‘dropped her life on the floor’

They met during a joint healing session at a church in suburban Sydney. What they all have in common is that they are all fascinated by slot machines, or “Pokie” as the Australians call them.

Poker machines in Australia.  Photo: Washington Post.

Poker machines in Australia. Picture: Washington Post.

Elsewhere in the world, electronic slot machines are mostly limited to casinos. In the US, millions of people flock to Las Vegas or Atlantic City every year to push buttons and watch the wheel spin, hoping to change their lives by hitting the jackpot.

But in Australia they are everywhere. Slots can be found in thousands of hotels and pubs, in both big cities and small towns. They have turned suburban clubs into sparkling “casinos”. In many cities there is a “VIP Room” or “VIP Lounge” with slot machines every few blocks.

“They are more popular than McDonald’s,” said former Australian Senator Nick Xenophon. “They’re on every street corner, right in front of you.”

Australia is home to less than 0.5% of the world’s population, but 20% of the population plays poker, and 80% of that outside of casinos. As a result, Australia has the worst loss rate in the world, on average: around US$1,000 per adult per year. Opponents of gambling say slot machines are a cause of suicides, domestic violence, default on payments and financial crime.

According to Charles Livingstone, associate professor of public health at Monash University, gambling causes the most negative impacts in Australia compared to similar countries.

The problem gets worse. According to a study, the percentage of Australians with gambling problems has doubled to over 1% in 10 years. But the gambling industry thinks slots are legal, regulated and responsibly embraced by millions of Australians.

When tough anti-Covid-19 lockdown orders were introduced in Australia, forcing pubs, nightclubs and casinos to close, many gamblers and their loved ones felt a sense of relief.

“It was probably the most peaceful moment of my life,” said the woman, named Sonia. Her son has attempted suicide twice since becoming involved in the slot machines as a teenager in Sydney.

However, when the blockade was lifted, their financial losses from the slot machines increased to record levels. Now they are back to pre-pandemic levels.

There is not much political will in Australia to change the situation as the gambling industry has given millions of dollars to major parties and paid billions of dollars in taxes.

In the state of New South Wales, which has half of Australia’s 200,000 poker machines, a gaming regulator recently lost its job after pushing for reforms that would protect players but hurt the industry.

This has resulted in recovering players like Emma almost falling into the abyss of disaster.

When it was her turn to share at the Anonymous Gamblers meeting, the quiet woman, in her 30s, said it had been 306 days since she last gambled, since she last looked at the slots to forget the emotional trauma of the abuse and since the last time she stole at work until she almost went to jail.

“After three hundred days, I’m still driven by them,” she said, looking at the slot machines.

Casino in front of the house

A Sydney hotel's VIP room opened its doors to players on March 4th.  Photo: Washington Post.

A Sydney hotel’s VIP room opened its doors to players on March 4th. Picture: Washington Post.

On a rainy Saturday morning in February, more than 20 people gathered at a house southwest of Sydney, Australia, sipping coffee and poring over maps. Five years ago, they won a lengthy legal battle to stop a project to build a pokie bar in the town of Casula. But now an investor has bought a budget motel across the street and hatched a similar plan.

“The impact of slots on this area will be huge,” said Criss Moore, a local teacher who was previously involved in the lawsuit. “There will be 60-90 new slots addicts”.

Casula no longer needed slot machines, she insisted. There were nearly 1,000 slot machines in two street bars and four nightclubs just a few minutes’ drive away.

Moore is also concerned about three people working to “rehabilitate” slot machines in the area. One victim said her husband burned 20 years of his salary because of the slot machines.

“If there’s a pokie bar across the street, he goes there every chance he gets,” the woman said. “Slot machines are like magnets”.

Iris Capital, the developer of the new pokie pub project in Casula, did not respond to a request for comment.

New South Wales has almost as many poker machines as Canada, which has almost five times the population of the state. About half of the more than 90,000 pokies in New South Wales are in and around Sydney. Most of them are located in the working-class suburbs to the west and south-west of the city.

The first illegal poker machines appeared in Australia in the 1930s and were dubbed “one-handed bandits”. By 1956 they were so popular that New South Wales authorities decided to legalize them in the hundreds of social clubs that opened during the post-World War II boom.

In the mid-1990s, New South Wales allowed casinos, pubs and hotels to host slot machines, later allowing other states and territories to do so. Today, poker machines can be found all over Australia, with the exception of Western Australia, where only one casino is allowed to install them and has the fewest gambling problems in the country.

“Gambling is normal, like every day,” said Charishma Kaliyanda, a councilwoman in south-west Sydney.

“We have become the biggest gambling country in the world because we have slot machines almost everywhere. Studies show that the closer you live to slot machines, the greater your chances of gambling and financial problems.

Peter Jankowski was a troubled business owner in the 1990s when slot machines started appearing in pubs near his Melbourne home. At first, Jankowski went to them to relieve the stress after work, but then the frequency of the games increased.

“It’s like having a casino on your doorstep,” he said. Jankowski estimates that he lost about $100,000 in six years of gambling before a therapist helped him quit. Today he works as a therapist. “It’s clearly an addiction,” emphasized Jankowski.

For Emma, ​​she sees slot machines as an outlet. When she was brutally abused by her boyfriend a few years ago, she fell into a coma for three months. Two years later, Emma rarely leaves the house because of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“When I finally got up the courage to go out into the world, the first thing I found was a pub,” she says. A pub full of slot machines.

From work, she found one of the five poker machines near her house and started loading it. Emma has never drunk alcohol, but playing poker made her feel like she was on drugs, she describes it.

“It’s like the middle of a hot summer day and you open something cool to drink,” Emma said. “Put money in the machine and you will feel the refreshment. You forget work, forget life”.

Emma kept gambling until she toasted her weekly paycheck. She lied to her parents about going to work but stuck her face in the slot machines at the pub. She got so drunk on the machines that she forgot to eat and lost nearly 50 pounds. When she found a new job as a cashier, she started stealing.

In three months, she stole tens of thousands of dollars from the owner and baked them into gambling. When the owner found out about it, they gave her a week to return it or face criminal charges.

Emma’s parents withdrew money from her pension fund to help her with compensation. They told her to go to Anonymous Gamblers to get rid of the addiction. Almost a year later, they still don’t fully trust her.

She hopes to one day take them to the pub for dinner without being drawn to the slot machines.

Critics say Australia’s gambling industry has not been reformed for more than a decade. In 2010, former Xenophon Senator and another independent lawmaker, Andrew Wilkie of Tasmania, pushed for a gambling industry reform bill that would require players to use cards with a maximum loss limit before playing poker. The law was passed but was short-lived after a coalition of conservative liberals and nationalists came to power.

Australian media reported last year that the gambling industry had donated at least $60 million to three major political parties over the past two decades.

In 2018 the Tasmanian branch of the Labor Party announced it would remove slot machines from pubs and clubs. But the gambling industry has lobbied to counterattack. Labor eventually lost the state election and was unable to do anything.

Sonia fears that the reforms will come too late for her son. Multiple sclerosis made him anxious, unable to sleep and prone to mood swings, factors that contributed to his gambling addiction. She had to mortgage her house and withdraw $50,000 from her retirement account to pay off her children’s debts.

One day she came home to find him unconscious from an overdose of sleeping pills. Another time, she had to break down his door and discovered that her son had cut his wrists and committed suicide.

Sonia tried to appeal to clubs and pubs near his home to ban him from playing poker. This process takes many months. Despite this, pokie bars very rarely stopped him. Four months of lockdown due to Covid-19 last year wasn’t long enough for her son to rehabilitate.

“The pubs have come back and invited it. What should I do?” Sonia wondered.

Vu Hoang (Corresponding Washington Post)