The high cost of Australia's addiction to 'pokies'

Slot machines on the main gaming floor of the Star City casino in Sydney Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some studies suggest Australians are the world's biggest gamblers

Laura began gambling on slot machines, or pokies as they are known in Australia, when she was 20 years old.

Within a few months she was hooked.

"I loved it but it didn't love me back," says Laura, not her real name, a wobble of emotion in her voice. She is now 25.

At her peak she was losing about A$5,000 ($3,650; £2,350) a month.

"It would be basically all the money I had until my last dollar was gone."

Laura had a decent job but she would pour all of her salary into the pokies and then borrow from friends and relatives to gamble more.

"I lost my relationship. I lost my job. I went to pretty desperate measures to fund my gambling."

'Gambling problem'

Laura is far from alone. Australians are officially the world's biggest gamblers, with each adult losing on average more than A$1,380 a year.

That is double the amount lost by Americans and almost three times as much as the British.

"Australians lose more per head than any other country in the world," says Dr Sally Gainsbury from the Centre for Gambling Research at Southern Cross University.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Half a million Australians are at risk from problem gambling

"Australia definitely has a gambling problem," she says.

"One percent of adults have a serious gambling problem which is actually a clinical disorder. Four percent of adults have moderate gambling problems and eight percent a low range of gambling problems."

That means it is estimated there are a staggering half a million Australians at risk from problem gambling.

'Hypnotised'

By far the biggest problem is slot machines, of which there are more than 200,000 across Australia.

"Pokies are the biggest revenue generator," says Dr Gainsbury. "Around two-thirds of all gambling losses are through the pokies and in Australia that amounts to around A$9.8bn a year."

It is incredibly easy to gamble in Australia. There are pokies in just about every pub or bar.

Many pubs contain betting shops, where punters are able to gamble and drink at the same time, and there's nearly always a handily placed cash machine near by, often even in the pub itself.

"My partner used to say it was like I was hypnotised," says Laura.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption There are high social costs to people becoming problem gamblers

"I was chasing the adrenalin of having a big win. There was just something about the lights and the sounds of the pokie machines. I would just crave it."

Laura, now a university student who hasn't gambled for more than a year since joining Gamblers Anonymous, says she knew the odds were against her but she just couldn't stop herself.

'Lied to their faces'

Gambling addiction takes many forms.

"I knew exactly what time I got paid and I lost all that money before I even left the office," says Matthew, again not his real name, a 35-year-old IT worker.

Matthew became hooked on amateur online trading sites, speculating on shares and currencies.

He first noticed he had a problem not because of the losses but because of the amount of time he was wasting at work researching the markets.

But soon he says he was losing more money than many people make in a year; tens of thousands of dollars.

"I lost a relationship, my fiancee. The relationship I had with my mum went down the drain," Matthew says.

"The thing that got most people was that I lied to their faces about where I was and about my money situation."

Social cost

Most compulsive gamblers have similar stories to tell.

"In terms of social costs, it is estimated that problem gambling costs A$4.7bn each year," says Dr Gainsbury.

"Gambling is something that affects not just the individual but the people around them. We're talking family breakdown, unemployment, work disruption and then things you can't even put a price on like suicide."

With such a heavy social cost you would think the government would be keen to do something about it. You would be wrong.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Gambling is a source of tax revenue for governments

"Gambling taxes are one of the single largest sources of income for the state and territory governments," says Dr Gainsbury.

"It's estimated that in 2014-15 they'll get almost A$5.9bn from gambling [in taxes]. This is over 10% of total tax revenue for some of the states."

And if anything, gambling is growing in Australia.

Chinese lure

On Sydney Harbour, a huge new supercasino is being built by the Australian businessman James Packer.

The A$2bn project is being aimed primarily at the Chinese market, hoping to lure a growing number of high rollers from Asia.

"Chinese gamblers are being highly targeted," says Dr Gainsbury.

"They're the ones who are expected to be staying at the five-star hotel and playing at the high roller tables."

Despite the estimated 500,000 people here at risk from problem gambling, Australia looks set to solidify its title as the capital of big betting.

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