OPINION: The Economist magazine once described Britain's national lottery as a way of gathering money from the poor to pay for the pleasures of the rich.
The same could be said of pokie machines in this country. Gamblers pump about $1 billion a year into machines in pubs, RSAs and sports clubs. Of that, about a third finds its way back to the community via gaming trusts. (The rest is consumed by the Government, in the form of taxes, as well as by pubs and clubs and the gaming machine trusts.)
The majority of machines are concentrated in lower socio-economic areas. Newtown, for example, has 72. Khandallah, Thorndon, Kelburn and Wadestown have none. However, the proceeds are distributed evenly across communities. That means the people who frequent gaming machines in poorer neighbourhoods are subsidising the sporting and cultural pursuits of their neighbours in wealthier parts of town.
For this reason, and many others, tentative Wellington City Council proposals to gradually lower the number of machines in five "areas of concern" – Tawa, Johnsonville, Miramar, Karori and Newtown – are welcome.
Pokie machines leach money from those who can least afford to lose it. Figures put together by this newspaper last year suggest a huge chunk of the money that is kept by operators and the Government and redistributed to the community comes from a relatively small group of about 6500 pokie players who lose mind-boggling amounts – an average of about $29,000 in 2008.
That is obviously more than many can afford, as evidenced by the tales of misery told by addicted gamblers. It is not just the gamblers who suffer, however. Families, friends and sometimes employers and workmates suffer as well when those addicted to the pokies go to desperate lengths to feed their habits.
The one certainty of pokies is that the more you play the machines the greater the likelihood you will lose. Shove $2 in and there's a chance you get could lucky. Feed hundreds of thousand of dollars in, as some people inexplicably do, and it's a statistical certainty you will lose. The machines are programmed to keep about 10 cents of every dollar put into them. The longer you bet, the greater the odds against you.
In mitigation, gaming machine trusts point to the money the machines generate for the community. The sums are considerable. Between April 2005 and August 2009 trusts distributed $38.4 million in the capital alone. Among other things, pokie profits have helped fund the new all-weather sports field at Nairnville Park in Khandallah, and two more indoor courts at the Renouf Tennis Centre. Numerous schools and sports clubs have benefited as well.
However, the human cost is too high. The price of upgrading the capital's facilities should be carried by those who benefit from them, not the poor unfortunates who cannot tear themselves away from the spinning wheels, flashing lights and tinkling noise of pokie machines. Any measure that reduces their prevalence is a good thing.
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