One in five pokie users across the country is at risk of becoming addicted to the gambling machines, with some turning to crime to fund their habit, says Problem Gambling Foundation counsellor Stewart Best.
The Hamilton counsellor said a large number of his clients had been in prison for fraud-based crime directly related to problem.
A gambling addiction is thought to be behind former Taranaki rugby star Willie Ripia's shock resignation from Perth's Western Force Super 15 team.
Mr Best said the addiction was a clinical condition that drove compulsive behaviour.
"One lady said to me she couldn't get it out of her head. She got to the point of stealing from her family, friends and neighbours to gamble ... There is a craving that has been described to me by a lot of gamblers as unstoppable."
Mr Best said stress could prompt the condition, which did not respect age, education, ethnicity or economic situation.
Pokie machines were the main problem, he said, but all sorts of gambling could be addictive.
The most recent national statistics show that more than 13,000 people sought assistance for gambling for the year ended June 2010 – but in Taranaki, only 177 people asked for help.
Taranaki people pump more than $60,000 a day (around $22million) a year into the region's 572 or so pokie machines. Of that, up to 92 per cent is paid out in prizes, and up to 40per cent of what is left over goes out in the form of grants.
Between October 1 and December 31 last year the New Zealand Community Trust, which operates many of Taranaki's pokies, returned $674,056 to the province. Notable recipients included the Taranaki Rugby Union, which got $250,000, Christmas at the Bowl Trust ($20,000) and the New Plymouth District Council ($20,000).
Trust chief executive Mike Knell said figures indicating that one in five pokie users was prone to addiction were highly subjective, and evidence to back them up was lacking.
"What we do know is problem gambling is a very complex disease that even highly experienced medical practitioners don't understand.
"Unfortunately there are some people, thankfully only two per cent, that are problem gamblers.
"It's the behaviour that is the problem, not the environment that gambling is conducted in. Gambling is conducted in a very regulated environment."
Mr Knell said more than $20m was paid out each year by the gambling industry to fund service providers to help the two per cent of gamblers who became addicted.
Are you addicted to gambling or do you know someone who is? Call the 24-hour helpline on 0800654655
- Taranaki Daily News
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