Opinion: The Community Gaming Counter-Argument

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Martin Cheer says that 54% of people seeking help for problem gambling are not related to community gaming machines, but to lotto, TAB, casino and online gambling products. Picture/File

I am for an informed debate on social issues. However, there seems to be a particular reluctance to consider counter-arguments to the well-worn debate over the role of community gambling machines in New Zealand.

I’m the CEO of Pub Charity, which has operated slot machines in Hawke’s Bay since they were first approved in 1987.

We are probably one of the largest charitable and non-profit funders in the City of Napier.

The value of community gaming machines is a very emotional question and deserves a thorough and precise examination.

In an opinion piece recently published in Hawke’s Bay Today, Kushlan Sugathapala presented an argument based on specific claims that require a response.

Contrary to claims made:

– per capita spending on community gaming machines is not increasing, but is down more than 40% in inflation-adjusted terms from the peak in 2004.

– the “increase” in year-on-year spending reported in 2021 is not an increase at all but the consequence of reduced spending in 2020 when venues were closed due to lockdown.

– the number of community gaming machines, or exposure per capita, has been halved since the peak in 2004.

– like the Lotto, community slot machines distribute 100% of their profits in subsidies.

– unlike Lotto, the games return players 92% in prize money – not 54% – and we spend no more than $30 million a year of community money on media advertising.

– slot machines are located where they are because the law requires them to be located in licensed premises (pubs and taverns) which are located where local and central government permits (ironically many government policies will not allow their relocation).

– New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of problem gambling in the world, but one of the least effective health responses according to a recent independent health audit.

– 54 percent of people seeking help for problem gambling are not related to community gaming machines but to lotto, TAB, casino and online gaming products.

– despite being readily available, fewer than 1,200 people nationwide have asked to be formally excluded from one or more community gaming venues.

– there is no clinical classification of “high-risk gamblers” mentioned by Kushlan Sugathapala, due to the very small number of actual problem gamblers. Low and moderate risk players are added to inflate the stats despite the lack of adverse consequences related to these categories.

– problem game providers and the Home Office have actively opposed the gambling industry setting up facial recognition systems to detect banned players and the Health Department has refused to help in the funding.

– over 60% of reported problem gamblers are in relapse and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the health response among those seeking help.

– there is a deliberate misrepresentation as to the distribution of gaming funds with 85% of community gaming grants returned to the region in which they were collected, compared to only 18% for Lotto.

The list of fake news goes on and on. I accept that Kushlan’s report was an opinion piece, but it passes itself off as fact.

The most alarming element of willful ignorance has to be the disregard of the counter-narrative: what is the alternative? The suggestion being a more ‘benign’ game like lotto (11% of problem gambling help requests) – or nothing at all.

Kushlan and others promoting this version of utopia ignore the smartphone in their pocket, the portal to not just TAB and Lotto online products, but literally hundreds of websites and thousands of slot machine games. available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – with many “push” game opportunities in social media and other alerts.

At least in community gaming, Kushlan has licensed industry, operators and sites that can be held accountable, and community returns, tax revenue and payments to local businesses to criticize.

Good luck with these complaints when dealing with a Gibraltar or Isle of Man based website.

Be careful what you wish for. The growth of online gambling and the disappearance of controlled and supervised spaces is a big step backwards, not forwards.

Martin Cheer is the CEO of Pub Charity
martin@pubcharitylimited.org.nz

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