Australia’s pokies addiction is doing us harm

By Leith van Onselen

Back in February, The Economist released the below chart showing that Australia was leading the world in gambling losses, losing just under $US1,000 a year per resident adult, with nearly half of these losses coming from poker machines (see below graphic).

ScreenHunter_17389 Feb. 12 13.19

According to The Economist:

To the general public, Australia hardly leaps to mind as a gambling hotbed. Yet industry insiders know it is far and away their most lucrative market: according to H2 Gambling Capital (H2G), a consultancy, betting losses per resident adult there amounted to $990 last year. That is 40% higher than Singapore, the runner-up, and around double the average in other Western countries. The most popular form of gaming in Australia is on ubiquitous electronic poker machines, or “pokies”, which are more prevalent there than anywhere else. Although the devices are legal in many other markets, bet sizes are usually capped at modest levels. By contrast, in Australia, which began to deregulate the industry in the 1980s, punters can lose as much as $1,150 an hour.

On Tuesday, ran a sobering report about how the nation’s pokies addiction is tearing apart the social fabric:

A MANIACALLY upbeat tune filters out to the road, spiked with the sounds of Super Mario scoring gold coins, of money falling in a sheet — dizzyingly intoxicating, unrelentingly merry…

Ross has lost $780,000 on the pokies, and everything he cared about, but even after 21 years in recovery, this unfathomable obsession still has a hold on him. “You know how triggering it is to hear the noise?” asks the 57-year-old. “I had a photography business, I went from a nice apartment to homeless and living at a Salvation Army hostel within six months. I’ve had many attempts to stop, and a few lapses. Even after losing everything, I’d be planning to be back.

“You gamble to extinction.

“I’ve got a history of gambling in my family. Mum had a stroke, because of my gambling and the shame … It’s a multigenerational thing, and it stops with me”…

[Ross is] at a community meeting, face-to-face with a man who’s pocketed the proceeds of his addiction, the chief executive of Mounties Group, a chain of clubs in western Sydney’s Fairfield. This suburb has more machines and more losses than anywhere in the country, with $8 billion fed into the pokies each year — $40,000 for every resident…

The legacy of pokies is now deeply stitched into the fabric of life in Australia. We are the world’s biggest gamblers, losing more money per capita than anyone in the world. We have more machines per person than any country on earth, and pour an incredible $135.7 billion into them annually in pursuit of that elusive high…

Allison Keogh, an Alliance for Gambling Reform spokesperson who is estranged from her pokies addicted mother, says the juxtaposition makes her nauseous. “They promote these places as family friendly, it makes me feel sick,” says the 44-year-old. “The sound reminds me of what I’ve lost.”

Allison spent hours of her childhood in “the jail with pink walls” — the local club’s kids’ playroom — while her mother played the pokies.

“This money comes from addiction. I grew up in a small country town, a great community. Pokies damaged that. A netball field was small consolation”…

NSW is the state with the worst problem, boasting a phenomenal 10 per cent of the world’s poker machines (second only to Nevada globally).

As much as $19.5 billion was gambled on pokies in NSW in February-March this year. Thirteen of the state’s top 25 hotels for pokies profits are in the Fairfield and Canterbury/Bankstown local government areas. Three are owned by Woolworths…

Mark Henson, an Oakdene gambling counsellor… [says] “It’s ingrained in our society.

“We have jails full of people who got involved with drugs or other means to obtain money. They need money to gamble, a way to obtain money, then they’re feeling shame and remorse, so what do they do to escape? Gamble.”

Pokie machines – which make up nearly half of all gambling losses – are a blight on our society. And while alcohol and cigarettes are also used by consenting adults, consumption of both have shown a decline in recent years, unlike poker machine losses.

It seems The Whitlams were right all along:


  1. Hardly surprising. Even the remotest chance of winning the jackpot (or especially winning Tattslotto) is the chance of a house.

  2. Jake GittesMEMBER

    As per the Courier Mail headline yesterday about housing wealth ‘earned’ without lifting a finger, the pokies hold the promise of easy money, albeit, hitting buttons. Maybe the authors of Games of Mates have a theory as to why this game-win mentality is strong, despite being passive: it doesn’t create anything.

  3. the_bystanderMEMBER

    Pity most of our politicians are too craven to the interests of Clubs Australia (or too gutless to push for even modest reforms) to fix this serious problem. A reformist leader needs to come out, remove or restrict them without giving vested interests any time to mobilise, and tell the haters to get f**ked

  4. darklydrawlMEMBER

    Those numbers are real scary when you remove the people who never (or rarely) play the pokies. I effortlessly name 20+ folks in my social circle that never play them. That means those average losses per person are skewed higher for those that tax. It really is a tax of people who cannot do maths. The longer you play, the more you lose. That said, some folks seem to have real trouble with them, so we as a society should step in and help. But we won’t as we like the profits way tooooo much.

    • I don’t know anyone who plays them regularly. I can only think of a handful over the years who made any reference to playing them regularly either.

      Someone is doing a lot of dough on them and chances are they are people who can least afford it.

      I had a PA who did for a while. Won big and then a slow controlled descent into terrain. I resisted the temptation to say I told you so…. she was pretty upset at doing her whole pay packet during lunch on payday.

      At least when only the not for profit clubs had the wallet draining devices the addicted (and fans of free full size snooker tables and beer) could at least get cheap food and grog.

      • darklydrawlMEMBER

        “doing her whole pay packet during lunch on payday”… Jeeeez…. That is equally grim and sad. :-/

      • It was probably for the best as she was fresh out of school and still living with mum and dad.

        A hard lesson but it killed her habit dead in its tracks… at least for as long as I worked with her.

      • ErmingtonPlumbingMEMBER

        I’ve worked with heaps of self employed tradies over the years who take a lot of cash, who plough over a 1000 bucks per week into them!

        One bathroom renovation builder I used to work for in the inner city, insisted I have a beer with him after we finished a job (he’d just been paid 9k cash) and he wanted us to go $50 note for note, on the pokies.
        I said no and sat on my 20 bucks for an hour (slow 1c hits over 10 lines). In that time we drank 3 schooners, he placed 3 bets on the dogs or horses and amazingly to me, put about $500 through the gaming machine next to mine.
        I said “Jeez Brucey, you’ve spent easily 6 or 7 hundred bucks since we’ve been here,…what are ya doing Man?”
        “F#ck giving it to the tax man Gunzo!” Was his reply in his thick NZ accent.
        I say, ” So your gonna blow 100% of your income, just so you don’t have to pay the tax man 30%,…WTF dude!”
        He looked at me, as though I had just said the most unmanly thing a man could ever say to another man.
        I had clearly said the stupidest thing anyone had ever said to him.
        I knew he was a big fan of the powders, but only later found out he was into the Hammer big time also.
        The man was driven by his vices, and was one of the hardest workers I had ever worked beside, without those vices, I often wonder how motivated he would be.
        The Domestic end of reno building and Maintenance is full of guys like these.

    • However bad you honk it is, in reality it it worse.

      In Western Sydney, the non-English speaking minorities are targeted. there’s Zero chance that will make it to the Murdoch press.

      Take a trip to the venue mentioned in the News article and you’ll be appalled.

    • yeah – but there is a bigger problem. we as a society no longer have the ability to defend the commons due to the nonsense ideas of progressivism, in this case equality.

      back in the day, we knew equality was limited to an ideal, which we aimed for in the law. no one thought equality was reality. now, because everyone is equal, even when they are clearly not, we have to assume full agency and leave them to their fates. this generally means cruel and unusual punishment, akin to being ground to dust.

      that is, we have lost the ability to say to a specific demographic, you have an aggregate tendency to xyz retard behaviour. hence, we will take away that agency and give it back if you can prove you have the ability to handle it. we cannot do this anymore.

      hence, everyone should have the same rights to pokie machines or whatever.

      • Wow.

        That is such completely arse-about-face reasoning I don’t even know where to begin.

        I suppose the key point is: it ain’t the “progressives” arguing that we shouldn’t prevent or discourage people from engaging in self-destructive behaviour. Indeed, they’re generally the ones being pilloried for suggesting we should (because FREEDOM).

  5. Pokies are sophisticated things designed to suck every dollar out of you, and it’s why CWN and ALL are being sued right now.

    In all honesty I think they ought to be banned. Otherwise, if they’re to be legal, all hard drugs ought to be legal too, as they do similar harm to society in my mind.

    • You have no idea. Few people know the pokie machines are networked, so the odds are actually spread over the number of machines in a venue, or across a group of venues.

  6. I have two who were regular players. One much worse than the other, but the solidarity in the gaming room would feed both their addiction. I watched one punch $6k through a machine in a night. Depressing watching them relentlessly go back to the ATM, reason or logic does not get through to them. I saw them recently and one has definitely given it away while the other is trying recently after the birth of their second child.
    The most disgusting thing is I now see pubs and clubs around QLD with signs saying “Gaming Room Open 10AM – 4AM Weekdays”
    Pokies are a disgusting, and so are the business’ and government relying on them.

  7. Turn off the sound and all the pretty lights and see their use nose dive.

    Like plain packaging cigarettes make plain packaging pokies.

    When a feature is won it automatically shows the winnings, no song and dance and flashy lights.

  8. Wasn’t there that guy, Nick Xenophon, does he still discuss pokies? The Greens in Canberra LA continue to fight for low spend limits.
    Anyway I mentioned last time this article came up here, the pokies are supposedly used for money laundering in Straya so that probably explains high per capita figure.
    I know one person who plays the pokies. there’s still a world out there of bike-riding scientists and another world of teetotaller Protestants who will never fall for the pokies trap.

  9. With the electronics, that could make the machines need a card and the card could have a weekly loss limit, adjustable up or down but with a capped upper limit.
    It’s all doable now with the digital age and linked machines.
    The loss limit could be set high enough that most people would have no idea that there was one.

  10. Prohibition didn’t work & removing Pokies will merely drive the practice underground (which allows the machines to be made even more unlikely to pay out). It’s probably part of a cunning government plan to stop them spending it on Ice. At least that way people will be poor rather than poor & in a lethal meth-induced rage. The other bit of good news is that robotics will soon ensure they will have no job and thus no money for Ice or Pokies…

    Welcome to the new 1984. We’ve so much to look forward to….

    • One vice I’m glad that I do not have. How depressing it is to see people drop coin after coin into those fucking machines. It’s a blight on this country and it has killed the pub culture.