More than $1 billion has been saved in poker machine losses across pubs and clubs Australia-wide since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to the Alliance for Gambling Reform.
In a statement on 22 April, the Alliance said it has taken less than a month to pass the $1 billion savings mark, with the figure approaching $1.5 billion if gambling losses in casinos are also counted.
Alliance for Gambling Reform chief advocate, the Reverend Tim Costello, said beyond the personal financial benefits and those for our economy, “this current poker machine shutdown will be significantly reducing gambling harm”.
However, with poker machines offline, gamblers are looking for other ways to get their fix. While most sporting events have been cancelled or postponed, gamblers still have access to Lotto, scratchies or novelty online betting, such as what temperatures capital cities will hit at a specific time of day.
Director of the Centre for Gambling Research at the Australian National University, Dr Marisa Paterson, said “I suspect that they are betting on those obscure things because there is not the normal sports betting, but when that comes back, I would expect them to transition back”.
“From my perspective it is what happens when the [poker] machines come back on,” she said with concerns of a potentially massive health disaster.
“We know that the nation’s 194,000 poker machines are off. We know that will be having a significant impact on those people that play, which is about one in five of the population,” Dr Paterson said.
“I think there will be some people that don’t use them again but there needs to be supports in place,” she said.
“Once the option [poker machines] comes back into play, it will be different for those resolved [to stop] at the moment to continue that.”
Dr Paterson likened the return of poker machines to lifting a ban on alcohol allowing everyone to drink again. She said you would need staged re-entry or face massive health problems such as binge drinking – and “that’s how we need to view gambling as well”.
When pubs and clubs are re-opened to the public, and if governments continue social distancing for health purposes, she said they should also consider a restriction on the amount of time people can access gaming machines as a harm minimisation strategy.
Dr Paterson referred to the 2019 ACT Gambling Survey which stated that people spending more than one hour in a typical session at an electronic gaming machine “were more likely to be at risk than not (57.9%), whereas people spending less than 10 minutes in a typical session had significantly lower risk”.
Meanwhile, Rev Costello said the COVID-19 crisis presented Australian society with an opportunity to rethink the way we socialised, especially at the many valued clubs around Australia. He is supportive of a move by the ACT Government to support community clubs in surrendering poker machines in exchange for $15,000 per machine, which must go towards retaining and supporting staff.
What’s in a bet?
The NSW Office of Responsible Gambling (ORG) has urged people not to gamble using overseas gambling sites such as casino games and slot machines.
Director of ORG, Natalie Wright, said overseas gambling websites are illegal in Australia, and people who use them face additional risks than when they gamble with a licensed Australian operator.
“These sites are illegal under the Commonwealth Interactive Gambling Act 2001, and because they’re not regulated, there are no safeguards to protect people,” Ms Wright said.
Under the legislation, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has the power to ask internet service providers to block overseas gambling sites operating illegally in Australia.
Common risks associated with overseas gambling sites include not being able to access winnings; winnings or credit disappearing when operators shut down or move; and operators withdrawing additional funds from players’ bank accounts without approval.