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Public Health and Gambling: Lessons from New Zealand

4th International Gambling Conference 2012

I have just come back from attending this excellent conference held in Auckland, New Zealand. I jumped at the invitation to speak there, despite the long journey, because this conference has a reputation for being probably the best for someone like myself who is interested in the public health and policy aspects of the subject and who doesn't want to go to a conference which is strongly influenced or funded by the gambling industry – many such meetings are and quite a number are actually held in casinos! I was certainly not disappointed by the content. But an extra bonus was the typical New Zealand welcome accorded to all attending, especially those from overseas – each day started with a special Maori, Pacific or Asian ceremony and the respect shown to the different cultures, for which Aotearoa/New Zealand is famous, was in evidence throughout.

4th International Gambling Conference 2012The conference was opened by Max Abbott, Director of the Gambling and Addictions Research Centre at Auckland University of Technology. Like other speakers he described the sudden expansion of gambling in New Zealand in the last 25 years, the way it is no longer confined to certain times and spaces as it once was, and the huge further changes which are likely as a result of technological advances. The big problem there, as in Australia, is the electronic gambling machines (EGMs), known in that part of the world as 'poker machines' or the 'pokies'. They are in fact much like EGMs in the UK, but more dangerous because their design allows larger amounts of money to be lost in a short time, and they have nothing directly to do with the game of poker. No-one I spoke to seemed to know for certain why they are called poker machines. One person said it was because you 'poke' money into the slot but that seems unlikely! More convincing is the explanation that originally the symbols were playing cards rather than fruit. Whatever the explanation, since they snuk in illegally from Australia in the late 1980s they have been legalised and are to be found in pubs, bars, clubs and casinos everywhere. Unlike in the UK where only two EGMs are allowed in a pub, a larger number (I think up to nine) are permitted, with the result that Auckland is full of rather seedy looking bars which advertise outside as '24 hour Gaming', 'Gaming Parlour' and the like.

You certainly get the impression that the pokies are a live issue in a way which no aspect of gambling is currently in Britain. During the conference the news came through, much welcomed by many present, that Christchurch Council had decided to maintain its policy of not allowing replacements for any EGMs which are lost due to an establishment going out of business, with no exceptions, even if the loss was caused by a natural disaster such as the earthquake of a year ago (the anniversary fell right in the middle of the conference). That a local town council should adopt a policy to reduce the numbers of machines, and should have the power to do so, seems strange to someone from the UK and just goes to show how much more conscious people in New Zealand are of the potential harms to health and well-being. In Australia, as Nick Xenophon, a Senator in their parliament, told the conference, this issue has contributed to the current political crisis since a crucial independent MP who had campaigned for mandatory pre-commitment (i.e. every punter would be required to state a maximum loss before gambling) had withdrawn his support for the government when the Prime Minister went back on her agreement to legislate for it. The clubs had spent huge sums on a campaign opposing it. Again the idea that anything to do with gambling could threaten to bring down a government seems fantasy land to us in Britain, so complacent are the powers that be. Nick reckons that international sports betting is going to be the next big problem – sports betting is one of the forms of gambling that has been on the rise in Britain as it happens.

Also in the news during the conference, meriting an editorial in the New Zealand Herald, was the request from Sky City which runs New Zealand's biggest casino, just round the corner from the conference venue, for permission for several hundred more EGMs in exchange for a new development extending their premises in the city centre. As the Herald put it, pokie regulation 'is not for sale'. I was specially interested therefore in a presentation by three members of Sky City casino's 'host responsibility' programme – about the only 'industry' presentation at the whole conference. They talked about the lengths they go to to identify people with gambling problems and their procedures for voluntary self-exclusion and considering family and other third party requests for exclusion. It sounded like good practice although one member of the audience complained that the way self-exclusion was actually carried out was undignified and had made her feel ashamed. One of the most interesting sessions took the form of a 'consumer panel' of several people who had experienced gambling problems. One participant spoke positively about having been able to self-exclude himself from all of New Zealand's casinos, but he also spoke of the dangerous side of casino 'hosting' which he had experienced – the VIP status afforded to the big spenders, the free car parking, drinks, meals and more.

There are many other presentations I could mention. They include everything from a meta-analysis of cognitive behavioural treatment (CBT) for problem gambling to a description of a campaign against EGMs near a school in Nelson and accounts of the difficulties of combating gambling-related problems in Australian aboriginal and rural communities. But a highlight for me was a keynote presentation by Manuka Henare of the Department of Maori and Pacific Development at the University of Auckland Business School. He spoke of the paradox that gambling, now a global growth industry with huge future growth potential, creates at the same time wealth for some and poverty for others, particularly apparent in Maori communities. He went on to describe the Maoritanga philosophy with its four well-beings – spirituality, environmental, family-kinship and economic – and 14 values or virtues that can be derived from them, such as wholeness, potential, reciprocity, generosity, solidarity and peace. Can these be considered consistent with gambling he asked. Whoa! A big question there.

Jim Orford
Emeritus Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology, University of Birmingham


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This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

It's so nice to read about problems from 2012 and compare it to the year 2017. Would you say that the gambling issue decreased over the last five years? I'd say - it's even worse now because now there are companies which allow minors to gamble...

It's so nice to read about problems from 2012 and compare it to the year 2017. Would you say that the gambling issue decreased over the last five years? I'd say - it's even worse now because now there are companies which allow minors to gamble virtual video game items which have a real world value and are easily sellable - just like tokens.

Best wishes,
Mark

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