Councils Call for Cull on Poker Machines

A campaign backed by almost 30 councils is aiming to enforce stricter legislation surrounding poker machines. If successful, it could see a vast reduction in the number of pubs, clubs and outlets permitted to stock the machines.

Poker machines, or pokies, are one of the most widely available and popular slot machine games, particularly in Australia. They are different to video poker, and simply consist of at least three reels that spin at the push of a button. In Britain, they are informally referenced as ‘fruities’ and are common in bars and even fast food venues. Many see them as part and parcel of Aour society, but a number of councils feel it is time to put an end to the easy accessibility of the machines.

Councils are claiming that the current regulations that decipher whether or not a pokie is approved are simply not strong enough, labelling the arguments in favour “flippant and unreasonable”. As it stands, applicants need only to argue that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) then has the option of approving or rejecting the application, with the former often taking precedence. In the past five years, just 7% of applications have been successfully challenged by community groups and councils.

A recent example of a successful argument in Melbourne demonstrates the flexible nature of the VCGLR. The pub successfully filed for seven pokies stating that it would increase the “accessibility” of machines in the locality. Whilst this sounds more like a simple statement of logistics rather than any kind of formative argument, all seven were approved, indicating just why the campaign has acted to try to stop pokies being approved so readily.

There is just cause for concern here. People may think of slot machines has a bit of harmless fun, Whilst this may once have been the case, slot machines have undergone an evolution to account for an astonishing 85% of profit in the gaming industry. Studies have shown that problem gamblers can become addicted to slot machines three times faster than other types of gambling, and has even been labelled the “crack cocaine of gambling”.

Natasha Dow Schüll, author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, spoke out recently about the changing role of slot machines in modern gambling.

“Slot machines have this reputation for being these arcade devices only played by little old ladies,” Schüll said. “But these devices are now driving the gambling industry and bringing in the majority of profits.

“The computerisation of slot machines gave casinos such precise control over odds that they could offer much higher jackpots and more exciting games while really controlling percentage payback and odds.”

She also expanded specifically on the legislation aspect. “It was much easier to push through legislation [expanding the availability of slot machines] than things that carried a weightier vice image, like table gambling or poker.”

She concluded that the approval of pokies is certainly a problem as there is “no equivalent of the FDA for these machines.”

The move comes after a number of recent changes that have threatened to increase the amount problem gamblers spend on the machines. In December 2013, casino owner Echo Entertainment successfully lobbied for a relaxation on laws in Queensland that had prohibited the use of $50 and $100 notes. This restriction was lifted and, whilst the overall limit remained the same, charities argued that making heavy gambling even quicker and easier was the last thing needed in Australia.

Statistics on Australian gambling clearly show the dominance pokies have in the market. Of the estimated £12.3 billion lost on gambling each year, a whopping £12 billion majority of that comes from poker machines, with around 200,000 dotted across the country in over 4,000 licensed clubs. Individually, that averages out to about US$1,300 a year per person – the highest in the world. Allowing the use of $50 and $100 notes is therefore an obvious cause for concern, especially given the number of problem gamblers in the country.

But it doesn’t stop there. Clubs Australia, the industry body representing licensed clubs, recently tabled a proposal to integrate childcare services within a casino environment. Having only been issued last month there is no clear indication yet whether the move will be approved, but it has been noted that a huge reform wouldn’t be required, as such clubs already enjoy a great deal of flexibility.

“In essence, clubs want to be the recipients of their own non-negotiable charitable contributions to the scheme, and to plough that money into the upfront capital costs of building childcare or aged care centres on their own property,” said The Guardian’s Adam Brereton. “Doing so would turn the ClubGRANTS scheme from a source of one-off funding for sports facilities and walking tracks, to a perverse subsidy that would in all likelihood feed back into their existing hospitality and pokies revenue streams.”

It is a rather scathing critique, yet the evidence is certainly piling up. There is a definite issue, particularly in Australia, though some would argue that anybody determined to gamble will find a way to do it regardless of the obstacles in their path. Certainly since the addition of online gambling the world has found it much easier to gamble whenever they want with countless sites offering all manner of  games at different stakes, 24 hours a day seven days a week.

As it stands, pokies continue to be readily available across Australia, the US and the UK, with punters trusted to gamble responsibly.