Why virus is a bonus for Aussie pokie addicts
COVID-19 has been a blessing for pokie addicts with the Alliance for Gambling Reform saying more than $1.5 billion has been saved in poker machine losses in pubs and clubs during the past seven weeks.
Australia has the highest gambling losses per head of population in the world and now Premiers and Chief Ministers are being called on to ban or limit access to "addictive" poker machines to cut the gambling suicide rate.
With COVID-19 restrictions being eased on pubs and clubs, federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie has written to all state and territory leaders asking them to use the shutdown to reset the $15 billion industry in Australia.
"There is another pressing public health issue that is about to pose a deadly threat, and that is the hundreds of suicides annually that will eventuate from the reopening of poker machine venues," Mr Wilkie wrote.
"The tragic fact is that about 80 per cent of gambling addicts are addicted to poker machines, and this results in at least 400 suicides in Australia every year."
Mr Wilkie said the suicide rate is "utterly unacceptable" and would be made even worse if politicians failed to do something about it.
Reverend Tim Costello, the chief advocate for the Alliance of Gambling Reform, said the gambling death toll is four times the COVID-19 death toll.
"Pokies are highly addictive, we need to ban their advertising, limit hours and plain package machines like tobacco," said Reverend Costello.
"COVID-19 is presenting us with a unique opportunity to rethink the situation ... the benefits of keeping poker machines switched off, far outweigh any supposed benefit in turning them back on."
The call comes as a new trends and issues paper released from the Australian Institute of Criminology highlighted the relationship between problem gambling and financial crime.
Researchers Yuka Sakurai & Russell G Smith examined a number of case studies and found gamblers with a problem often turn to crime to support their habit.
The paper found gamblers with a problem they are likely to borrow money often without paying it back and some go on to sell assets, or borrow money, and once debts have accumulated beyond their means, seek out illegal sources of money.
Anna Bardsley, who was addicted to pokies for 10 years and is now an advocate working with the Alliance for industry change, said it is time to limit the hours pokies can be played and to plain package machines like tobacco has been.
"The pokies should be one of the last things to reopen and it should be with reduced hours," said Ms Bardsley.
"Nothing good is happening at 3am in the morning. The people gambling at that time are the ones who can't stay away."
Brett, (not his real name) the husband of a gambler with a problem, said surprisingly, the lockdown has taken away his wife's "urge" to gamble.
His wife, a 45-year-old professional, has lost $150,000 on the pokies in four years, but with the machines shut down, she is happy not gambling.
"It is the bells and whistles and flashing lights that get you in," said Brett.
"She has no desire to gamble online, but in the clubs with the pokies, she has the idea she can win."
Monash University Associate Professor Charles Livingstone said for many people who have been struggling with gambling, COVID-19 lockdown has enabled them to have money for the first time in a long time.
"The important thing is that it does give people an opportunity to reset what has become, in many cases, a very unpleasant and dangerous habit," Dr Livingstone said.
He said it has been a motivator of white collar financial crime and embezzlement and a link to domestic violence.
"Some people use it (gambling) to self-medicate and take away anxiety and depression but then when they lose all their money they are left with feelings of shame and stigma and it can end in mental health issues and suicide."
A research report released in 2016 by Warfield & Associates 'Gambling Motivated Fraud in Australia 2011-2016 found a range of Australians had turned to crime to satisfy their compulsion to gamble, and the impact on their lives and those around them was profound, included losing their jobs, homes, businesses and attempting suicide.
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