THE HERALD'S OPINION: The state government and the embrace of the poker machine

AS we have reported this week, more than $4.4 billion a year is going through the thousands of poker machines installed in the Hunter region’s registered clubs and hotels.

With the machines supposedly calibrated to return about 90 per cent of the money put through them, the across-the-board loss was $376 million.

But you don’t have to be a pokies player to know that the money doesn’t flow back evenly. If it did, there wouldn’t be room for the all-attractive jackpots that are the reason most punters are in the room in the first place.

Inevitably, then, most players lose more than the average 90 per cent, so that the occasional winner can walk out with a windfall: or put it back through the machines, as the case may be.

Of course all of this is perfectly legal, but it comes at a cost. Problem gamblers bring with them a social cost that is often borne by their families. As Newcastle psychologist Michael Bazaley observes, people only tend to seek help when their gambling reaches a crisis point, such as bankruptcy, or the leaving of a partner.

Until then, most problem gamblers will try to function as best as possible, using all of the tricks that addicts resort to when trying to keep their habits a secret.

But like the heavy drinker who denies a problem with alcohol, not all problem gamblers will accept there is anything wrong with their behaviour, even if it does drain their wallets or max out their credit cards.

In a similar light, you’ll go a long way before you’ll find a club executive or hotelier who admits they are doing anything wrong by having pokies on their premises. Look how much we put back into the community, they say. And while the state promotes its regulation of the pokies under a “responsible gambling” framework, the $1.5 billion a year, and rising, collected in NSW poker machine taxes gives weight to claims that the government is as addicted to poker machine revenues as the players are to the machines.

So what should happen from here?

Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie has fought a high-profile but essentially lone hand against the gambling industry, but public interest in his cause seems muted at best. Despite the obvious risk to the hip pocket, the average Aussie seems happy enough to keep trying their luck, even if logic says there are better ways to spend your time.

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