SYDNEY — One by one, the men and women recounted lives ruined, relationships severed, bank accounts emptied. A young father stared at the ceiling in shame as he described another relapse. A burly man’s voice broke as he recalled stealing from his sons’ piggy bank to fuel his habit. A woman on Zoom clutched her cat to her chest as she described hitting “rock bottom.”
What united them at this meeting in the drab church building in a working-class suburb of Sydney?
It was the pokies.
In much of the world, electronic slot machines are confined largely to casinos. In the United States, millions flock to Las Vegas or Atlantic City each year to press a button and watch the wheels spin in the hope of a jackpot.
But in Australia, pokies, as the machines are called here, are everywhere. They’re in thousands of hotels and pubs, in big cities and small towns. They’ve transformed neighborhood social clubs into gleaming gambling palaces. In many cities, it’s hard to walk more than a few blocks without encountering a “VIP Room” or “VIPLounge.”
“They are more ubiquitous than McDonald’s,” said Nick Xenophon, a former senator and prominent opponent. “It’s on every street corner. It’s in your face.”
Australia is home to less than half a percent of the world’s population but has 20 percent of its pokies — and 80 percent of those located outside casinos. The result is a nation with the world’s worst average gambling losses: About $1,000 per adult each year. Opponents of gambling say pokies fuel suicides,domestic violence, insolvenciesand financial crimes.
“If you look at comparable countries around the world,” said Charles Livingstone, an associate professor of public health at Monash University,“we are far and away the worst in terms of both expenditure and its impact on the community.”
The gambling industry says pokies are legal, regulated and enjoyedresponsibly by millions of Australians. But when strict coronavirus lockdowns closed pubs, clubs and casinos, many addicts and their relatives were relieved.
“That was probably the most peaceful moment in my life,” Sonia said. Herson, she said, has tried to take his own life twice since becoming hooked on slots as a teenager in Sydney. She and others spoke on the condition that their full names not be used, because gambling addiction is still stigmatized.
When the lockdowns were lifted, however, financial losses to the pokies soared to record highs. They now remain as strong as before the pandemic.
There is little political will for change in a country where the gambling industry donates millions of dollars to the major political parties and pays billions in taxes to states and territories. In New South Wales, home to half the country’s 200,000 pokies, the gaming commissioner was recently removed after pushing reforms that would have protected gamblers at the expense of the industry.
That has left recovering addicts such as Emma one misstep from catastrophe.
When it was her turn to speak at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, the quiet woman in her 30s said it had been 306 days since she last gambled, since she last turned to the pokies to escape the trauma of a horrific assault, since she last stole from her employer and nearly went to prison.
That very evening, she told the others, she had felt the pokies’ pull the instant she had stepped outside of her house, and it had taken all her willto drive to the meeting instead of stopping at one of the many pubs on the way.
“Three hundred days later,” she said, “I still get that urge.”
‘A casino on your doorstep’
On a rainy Saturday morning in February, two dozen people huddled in a house in southwestern Sydney, drinking coffee and poring over maps. Five years earlier, they had won a long-shot legal battle against a bid to build a pokie pub in their neighborhood of Casula. But now a developer had bought the budget motel across the street and launched a similar plan.
“The effects of the pokie machines on this area will be enormous,” warned Criss Moore, a local teacher who led the previous legal battle. “There will be 60 to 90 new pokie addicts.”
Casula didn’t need any more of the machines, she said. Among two pubsdown the road and four clubs within a few minutes’ drive,there were already nearly 1,000 pokies nearby.
Moore also feared for three recovering pokie addicts in the area. A woman who lives five minutes from the motel said her husband had lost 20 years of salary to the machines.
“If a [pokie] pub is up the road, any chance he has, he’ll go,” said the woman, whom The Washington Post is not identifying in consideration of her and her husband’s privacy.
“The pokie machine is like a magnet,” she said.
Iris Capital, the developer, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the Australian Hotel Association and its state chapter, which lobby on behalf of pubs.
New South Waleshas almost as many machines as Canada, where the population is nearly five times that of New South Wales. About half of the state’s roughly 90,000 pokies are in greater Sydney, and the vast majority of those are in the city’s working-class western and southwestern suburbs.
Illicit mechanized pokies dubbed “one-armed bandits” began to appear in Australia in the 1930s. By 1956, they were so widespread that authorities in New South Wales decided to legalize them in the hundreds of social clubs that had opened during the postwar boom. The nonprofit clubs plowed their earnings into restaurants, sports facilities, entertainment centers and more pokies.
Many have come to resemble large casinos. The state allows them to direct some of their taxes to local charities, further enmeshing pokies in the community. Yet, there is little transparency over the grants, said Charishma Kaliyanda, a city councilor for the area containing Casula,and few go toward gambling prevention.
Casinos, pubs and hotels in New South Wales were allowed to install pokies in the mid-1990s. Other states and territories, searching for revenue — they do not collect income tax — also approved the machines. Today, pokies can be found widely in every part of the nation except Western Australia, where they are allowed in only one casino, and where there is less problem gambling.
“Gambling is so normalized as something you do with mates,” Kaliyandasaid. “It’s almost like a frog-in-boiling-water situation: At what point does it tip from being a social thing to being a serious harm?”
It is said herethat Australians will bet on “two flies crawling up a wall.” But researchers say the country is not innately more inclined to gamble.
“The reason why we are the world’s biggest gamblers is because we have pokies basically on every corner,” Livingstone said. Studies show that the closer someone lives to pokies, the greater the likelihood that the person will gamble on the machines and experience financial hardship.
Peter Jankowski was a struggling business owner in the 1990s when pokies began popping up in pubs near him in Melbourne. He began going after work to relieve stress, then during his lunch break, then all the time.
“It’s just like having a casino on your doorstep,” he said. Jankowski estimates that he lost about $100,000 in six years before a therapist helped him quit.He now works as a therapist. “This is an addiction,” he said.
For Emma, pokies began as an escape. Several years ago, she was brutally assaulted by an abusive partner, she said. The attack left her in a medically induced coma for three months. Over the next two years, Emma rarely left home because of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I finally built up the courage to step out into the world, what I found was a pub,” she said. A pub full of pokies.
She would head from work to one of the five pokie spots near her house and begin feeding money into the machines. She has never consumed alcohol, but playing the pokies hit her like a drug, she said.
“It was like on a hot summer’s day opening something cool to drink,” she said. “You put that first note in, and you just feel this ease. You forget about work, forget about life.”
Emma began to play more and more, until she was losing her entire paycheck each week. She lied to her parents about going to work, instead spending all day at the pub. She sat at the slots for so long without eating that she lost 50 pounds. When she got a new job that involved collecting money, she began to steal.
The Department of Liquor & Gaming issued a record $145,000 fine after determining that the club had “wined and dined” Van Duinen with harbor cruises and other perks “while ignoring his gambling addiction.” After his widow said she had unsuccessfully begged the RSL to ban Van Duinen, the state government and industry group ClubsNSW promised to allow such interventions.
Almost four years later, however, suchthird-party exclusions still haven’t been implemented in the state’s clubs or pokie pubs. And there is little enforcement of a system in which gamblers can ban themselves, according to advocates, relatives and recovering addicts.
“It’s so sad,” said Joy Van Duinen, Gary’s mother. “There are a lot of people out there who are in the exact same situation that Gary was in, and family can’t step in.”
Dee Why RSL did not respond to a request for comment. ClubsNSW said that it supports third-party exclusions but that the law must be changed to implement them. It acknowledged problems with enforcing self-exclusions and said it was working with regulators to improve the system.
“Despite best efforts from clubs, it is not always possible to prevent someone who wishes to breach their exclusion from doing so,” ClubsNSW said in a statement.
Critics sayAustralia’s gambling industry has been resisting reforms for more than a decade. In 2010, Xenophon, who said he entered politics because of the damage he saw pokies cause in South Australia, and another independent lawmaker, Andrew Wilkie from Tasmania, pushed a gambling overhaul bill that would have required people to use cards with preset loss limits to play pokies. After a lobbying blitz, however, the requirement was removed from the legislation by the center-left Labor government before it passed, and the law was then repealed roughly a year later after a conservative Liberal-Nationals coalition came to office.
“It acted as a warning shot to politicians not to mess with them,” Xenophon said. He compares the power of the gambling industry in Australia to that of the gun lobby in the United States.
The industry holds still more sway at the state level. In 2018, Tasmania’s branch of the Labor Party ran on a promise to remove pokies from pubs and clubs. But the industry launched a lobbying counteroffensive. Labor lost the election and has since done an about-face.
In New South Wales, where the conservative coalition is in power, a Liquor & Gaming minister who had been pushing for reforms — including third-party exclusions and cashless gambling cards that would enable limits and dissuade money laundering — was moved to another position in December.
The state government did not respond to questions about the move. Instead, it cited the creation of an Office of Responsible Gaming in 2017 as evidence that it is “committed to targeting harms linked to problem gambling.”
Sonia fears changewill come too late for her son, whose multiple sclerosis makes him anxious, unable to sleep and prone to mood swings — factors contributing to his gambling addiction. She mortgaged her house and withdrew $50,000 from her retirement account to pay off his debts.
One day, she came home to find him unconscious after overdosing on sleeping pills. Another time, she brokehis door down after he cut his wrists.
Sonia tried to help her son exclude himself from some nearby clubs and pubs. But the state required him personally to go to each venue — inviting a relapse — or see a counselor who could ban him from a few dozen at a time. It took months of haranguing regulators to get special permission for her son to exclude himself from every pokie spot in New South Wales.
Even then, she said, pokie pubs would rarely stop him from entering, leading to distraught calls in the middle of the night. Last year’s four-month coronavirus lockdown couldn’t last long enough.
“The pubs are back to welcoming him in,” she said. “So what do I do?”