Pokie machines: South Auckland's ongoing struggle with problem gambling

7:50 pm on 13 October 2020

Auckland Council is expected to vote this week to maintain its sinking lid policy for pokie machines in the region.

Pokie machines.

Photo: RNZ

But a new report to the council's Regulatory Committee illustrates the sheer scale of problem gambling in South Auckland.

According to the council report over half the people in Auckland seeking treatment for pokie machine gambling addictions are from South Auckland. And just over half of those seeking help are gaming machine users.

New figures released by the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) show South Auckland had both the largest number of machines and the highest pokie expenditure for the three months to June 30. Gamblers in the Papakura area spent $1,759,727 on 198 machines, while in Manukau pokie machine users spent $2,710,110 on 180 machines.

Under the Gambling Act 2003, Auckland Council must have its own gambling venue policy and set out whether the council will allow new venues to be established and if so, where they can be located.

In 2013 Auckland Council agreed to a sinking lid policy for Class 4 pokie machine venues. The policy means no new consents are issued for new venues and prevents the machines from one club being transferred to another if it closes, helping to reduce the overall number of machines.

But under the policy two licensed venues can merge if they reduce the number of machines they have by one-sixth.

In a report to Tuesday's Auckland Council's Regulatory Committee, council officers recommended maintaining the existing sinking lid policy as the number of operators and machines were continuing to decrease. The number of pokie venues in Auckland has decreased by 13 percent since 2016.

But despite the results the majority of the venues continue to be located in high-deprivation areas like South Auckland.

The last review of the council's gambling policy in 2016 found the number of machines had decreased by 11 percent, but overall takings had increased by 10 percent.

Problem Gambling Foundation spokesperson Andree Froude said while the council's sinking lid policy was one way to reduce the harm caused by gaming machines, by itself it isn't enough.

"Sinking lids take so long because they rely on venues closing, and we're not seeing that in our more deprived communities in areas like South Auckland," she said. "When you walk down the street in South Auckland there are venues everywhere.

"We're still seeing the impact of gambling harm on people in these communities. These people are losing money to gambling they can't afford to lose."

Froude said despite the fact the number of pokie machines was declining, the amount people were spending wasn't.

"The spending on pokies is going up and up."

Froude said the wider issue of community groups being funded by pokie machine proceeds also needed to be addressed, because the money was coming from the country's poorest communities.

According to the Auckland Council report 40 percent of pokie machine proceeds were turned into grants to community organisations.

The council report cited a Ministry of Health 2017 study which found individual gambling produced the same level of harm as high alcohol consumption, anxiety and depression.

"Cumulatively the harm is close to twice that of drug use disorders, bipolar affective disorder, eating disorders and schizophrenia combined."

The council report said Māori public health organisation Hāpai te Hauora identified that, along with the immediate financial impact problem gambling had, it could also result in criminal activity, child neglect, depression and anxiety and strained relationships.

But according to the Ministry of Health only 16 percent of problem gamblers seek treatment.

Auckland Council Regulatory Committee chairperson Linda Cooper said she couldn't comment or vote on the issue as she had a conflict of interest as president of the Waitakere Licensing Trust, a West Auckland-based trust which operates pokie machines.

The Regulatory Committee's deputy chairperson Josephine Bartley was unavailable for comment.

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