Gambling study recommends caps on pokies be retained 

l-r: Dr Tess Lea, Dr Martin Young and Dr Mary Morris

A team of researchers at Charles Darwin University’s School for Social and Policy Research, led by Dr Martin Young, have just released a report on the prevalence of gambling in the Northern Territory.

The report found that the total amount lost by local players on poker machines has increased from $45 million in 1996-7 to $114 million in 2004-5. With an increase in the number of machines in casinos and pubs from 1,074 to 1,802 in the same time period, it is not surprising that on average, each resident loses $562 per annum on the pokies.

While poker machines were by no means the most popular form of gambling, they accounted for a large proportion of the expenditure on all forms of gambling, which totalled $272.4 million in 2005-6.

Based on the results of a telephone survey, Martin’s team found that 73 per cent of the adult population gambled at least once a year, with 53 per cent participating in lottery games alone.

Considering the fact that gambling is a form of entertainment for most people, an average expenditure of $562 per person on the pokies appears to be a reasonable amount of loss to sustain in the course of a financial year, but this figure is misleading to the extent that it distributes the losses of a small number of people across the entire population. The report estimates that approximately 1.1 per cent of the population can be classed as ‘problem gamblers’, whom as a group accounted for 31.3 per cent of total gambling expenditure in the NT. Problem gamblers reported an average loss of $30,913 per annum, with an estimated $15,800 spent on the pokies alone.

The figures show that a significant proportion of revenue generated by the gaming industry every year is derived from the financial hardship of a small number of individuals. However, as it is difficult to assess the true social costs of ‘problem gambling’ – which has all the hallmarks of a serious addiction – more research is needed to determine whether or not the social and economic benefits of gambling outweigh the costs. It is clear from the survey, however, that those who play poker machines are at a much higher risk of becoming a ‘problem gambler’.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the gaming industry in the NT is that poker machines tend to be located in more affluent areas, a trend which contradicts the situation in other jurisdictions, where there has typically been a concentration of poker machines in poorer areas.

To explain this anomaly, the authors of the report suggest that venues in the NT have a wider catchment area than their equivalents in big cities, and suggest that the new generation of poker machines have been introduced into existing venues, which have been historically located in more affluent areas.

Whatever the cause of this anomaly, the demographic data suggests that problem gamblers are more likely to earn less than $20,000 per annum and less likely to have received any tertiary education. This data suggests that problem gamblers are travelling from poorer areas to gamble in existing venues, although more research is needed on specific venues to confirm this trend.

Those classed as ‘regular gamblers’ – who comprise only 7-8 per cent of the adult population, but account for 75 per cent of total gambling expenditure – were more likely to be relatively wealthy, with an income of over $80,000 per annum. The results of the survey indicate that there is a class of men over the age of 55 who gamble regularly, but have the financial capital to sustain an average loss of $11,183 per annum.

What is clear from the socio-spatial analysis is that Territorians appear to have an insatiable appetite for playing the pokies.

It was found that profits from gaming machines tend to increase in proportion to the number of machines in venues. The report authors called this a ‘concentration effect’, a disturbing trend that has seen profits from poker machines double over the last 10 years. To limit the social and economic costs associated with problem gambling, the authors recommend that the current practice of ‘capping’ the number of poker machines in pubs, clubs, hotels and casinos be retained.

Martin and his team were also concerned that more and more Indigenous gamblers are spending money on poker machines, a trend which sees the community funds pooled in unregulated card games appropriated by the regulated gambling industry.

While Indigenous card games have been historically seen as a beneficial social institution that facilitates the equitable distribution of community funds, a scoping study also undertaken suggests the money is now flowing from remote and rural areas into the bigger centres. In their report, the team identify a need for more research into the nature of Indigenous gambling, as well as a more specific focus on gaming venues.

Download the full report:

An Overview of Gambling in the Northern Territory (.pdf 493KB)
Northern Territory Gambling Prevalence Survey 2005 (.pdf 1014KB)

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