Should pokies be funding your local kindy?

Opinion: The community sector is being propped up by the proceeds of gambling. Professor Peter Adams says we need to find another way to fund our lifeblood organisations that's not profiting off people's misery.

Once gambling was commercialised it literally became big business - some $2 billion a year is generated from casinos, pokies and Lotto in Aotearoa New Zealand. Roughly a quarter of that (and 40 percent from pokies) goes to the community sector.

Professor Peter Adams is associate director for the Centre for Addiction Research at the University of Auckland. He told RNZ Nine to Noon presenter Kathryn Ryan why he thinks we need to find another way to fund schools, charities, sports and cultural organisations that's not profiting off people's misery.

"Thirty years ago, gambling was a fairly low potency, low impact business. It was mainly the National raffle, which was Golden Kiwi, we had housie, we had racing. Most of those were low potency - you placed a bet and had to wait for a response - and they were pretty social. 

"But in then in the 1990s, 20,000 machines in a very short time arrived in New Z and were spread through 2000 pokie rooms. The pokie room is the engine for this funding base. 

"I'd liken it to an industrial revolution that caught us off-guard because we trusted that gambling was fairly innocuous. But this kind of gambling is high-potency, it's continuous, and it's been developed on an industrial scale. There's just so many pokie rooms now spread around the country."

As a community group.. I'd want to feel that most of the money is coming from people who are having fun rather than people whose lives are miserable because of their gambling.

Professor Peter Adams Centre for Addiction Research, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

Professor Adams said about a quarter to a half of pokie gambling is by people with problem-gambling, and pokies are concentrated in low-income areas and engage people who are marginal or poor. 

"There are subtle harms that go on, if you have a low-income family and a person is regularly gambling, it can tip them over the edge in terms of the finances of that home, and that can have knock-on effects in education and so on."

He said the incentives were all wrong. "What we've done is focus the profits from gambling on supporting community activities. Now, on the surface that seems a really good idea, but what that does is encourage real dependency for community groups on this source."

Even though people with gambling problems are in the minority, they spend a lot more, he said. Half the money from pokies comes from this group, which is problematic.

"As a community group, like a kindy or arts organisation, I'd want to feel that most of the money is coming from people who are having fun rather than people whose lives are miserable because of their gambling."

The design of pokies rooms exacerbated the harm from this form of gambling. "The pokie room is designed to engage people with problems: it's anonymous, it's solitary, it's in a darkened place."

Professor Adams said we could look to Norway for a solution.

"In 2007, Norway shut down all their pokies because they were concerned about harms and the community reliance. They subsidised community groups during a two-year period in which they built low-harm pokies. They spread the machines around betting places, and put lots of features into the machine that reduced their capacity to addict people.

"That meant that if community groups were getting money, it was more oriented around people having fun than people having problems."

He said government has a strong responsibility to look resolutely at ways of making pokies less harmful.

Professor Peter Adams gave the second lecture in the university’s Winter Lecture Series 2019, which is being hosted by the Centre for Addiction Research with the theme: 'Addiction: The Changing World of Dangerous Consumptions'. Lectures will run each Wednesday until 14 August in the University's Fale Pasifika, 12.30-1.30pm. Admission is free, with no registration required.

Professor Peter Adams is associate director of the Centre for Addiction Research, based at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from RNZ Should pokies be funding your local kindergarten? on 17 July 2019.