Concern is growing that prolonged Covid-19 lockdowns are causing an increase in online gambling within Pacific communities, according to a problem gambling support service.
Problem gambling support service Mapu Maia is reporting more people are gambling online over lockdown, and the impacts will be detrimental if government policy isn't changed to better help the most vulnerable.
Mapu Maia provides a holistic service to individuals, families and communities that is culturally appropriate and effective.
Since New Zealand's latest lockdown began in August, Mapu Maia has been noticing a rise in online problem gambling. Director Pesio Ah-Honi said Covid-19 is causing more Pacific people to turn to their devices to feed their gambling habits.
She said there's been a spike in 20 to 30 year old Pacific men seeking counselling to help them quit.
"We started hearing they were gambling online, some of them were buying Lotto more online and playing the Lotto scratchies online, and then others playing casino type slot games online from overseas companies, and slowly we have seen an increase of that."
Pesio Ah-Honi said boredom, isolation, loneliness and desperation are driving people to take up the online gambling habit and she's worried about the long term impacts.
"Anecdotally we are seeing it in the frontline as lockdowns continue and as people are more and more isolated, we are going to see the online gambling spending increase, we are going to see online gambling harm increase, and we are going to see more and more fallout from it in terms of an increase in mental health, social impacts of jobs, families, relationships, domestic violence.
Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio said people with a lower socio-economic position often turn to gambling.
"If they went and spent $20 down at the pokie machine, well, they will get $200 back, and the reason why they were doing that because the gambling was becoming a normal part of trying to figure out how to meet the basic costs," Sio said.
"Our government has set out right from the outset to try and lift basic incomes, provide support to families with children and hopefully that puts up a barrier, if you like, or a sense of confidence in families that they didn't need to include $20 to go around to a pokie machine..."
He acknowledges there is room to do more.
"We are going to have to figure out as a society, how do we live with gambling out and about in our surroundings and how do we protect the most vulnerable.
"It's like drug addiction, you end up selling everything just to meet that fix," the Minister said.
A Tongan academic who recently completed his PhD on gambling harm to Pasifika communities is warning against the impacts of online gambling.
Dr Edmond Fehoko said it can be dangerous because the harm flows on to families and the wider community. Pasifika and Māori are at greater risk than any other group in Aotearoa.
"Covid-19 has pretty much exacerbated these digital worlds and online opportunities for Pacific peoples and we can't underestimate the power of online within Pacific communities and the fact that gambling has already hit the Pacific community, like no other," he said.
Dr Fehoko said apps and online accessibility to gambling is greater than ever before.
"If you watch Lotto for example and they read out the winners, where are the majority of winners coming from, 'My Lotto app' and the exposure for that already creates interesting excitement for Pacific people to download the app and put money into it, and that's how they carry on their gambling behaviours in a Covid-19 world," he said.
"So, if they are doing that for Lotto, imagine what they are doing for TAB for casino games that are not even controlled here in New Zealand," Fehoko said.
Problem gambling support service Mapu Maia is eagerly waiting on the government's review of online gambling.
Its director Pesio Ah-Honi is calling for stronger consumer protection especially to mitigate hard offshore gambling which is not regulated.