Maitland residents are shovelling millions of dollars into the pokies at an “alarming and disturbing” rate, some punters losing between $20,000 and $30,000 in an afternoon.
Statistics from the Independent Liquor and Gaming Industry, reveal that a staggering $4.4 billion was pumped into poker machines across the wider Hunter and Newcastle in the 12 months to August last year.
Hunter clubs made net profits on their machines of $262 million and hotels $114 million, meaning Hunter players lost more than $376 million out of statewide losses of about $8 billion.
But more alarming is the rise of younger people, many underage, who are prepared to have a flutter online, linking bank accounts to gaming apps on their phones.
According to Mission Australia’s Gambling Program Manager Libby Ferfoglia and Hunter gambling counsellor and former Newcastle Knights fullback, Ashley Gordon, gambling in our region is on the rise, the worst they have ever seen it.
This hidden epidemic as they describe it, has led to relationship breakdowns, people dipping into superannuation funds to bankroll their habit and suicide.
Mr Ferfoglia and Mr Gordon agree Maitland people are particularly vulnerable given the number of blue collar shift workers in the city who are keen to “zone out” after 12 hours on the tools.
“The Australian gaming industry has a similar power to the gun industry in the United States. You just can’t get anything done about it,” Mr Gordon said.
Ms Ferfoglia, said some outlets extend trading hours to accommodate shift workers after a beer and a punt. “In the Hunter we are losing $18 million a quarter on poker machines. That’s disturbing, frightening,” she said.
Even more alarming is the growing trend of children making the move from online games to betting online.
“We are quite limited in restricting access to those sites in Australia. It’s terrifying. There’s no age verification, they just click a button to say they are over 18.”
Ms Ferfoglia said she has had people lose $20,000 to $30,000 on poker machines in one afternoon. “Often there are young people who are saving for their mortgage and they get online and gamble. They lose then gamble again to try to recoup what they have lost. It’s a vicious cycle.”
She said the odds are against pokie lovers with the machines developed to give a small win to entice people to keep playing. “They have jackpots that are enticing. Gaming rooms are set up to keep you in the zone, keep you playing with free tea, coffee and food – it’s the complete escape, very comfortable and a nice pleasant area to be if you’re on your own or lonely. Some outlets even have front door parking for the ‘VIP Room’ customers,” Ms Ferfoglia said.
Gambling is tearing relationships apart, causing homelessness, domestic violence and even suicide.
“The wife of a client discovered he had been withdrawing money from his superannuation to gamble with no ability to go back to work and recover any of the money he lost,” she said.
“Their plan was to pay off the mortgage and live a comfortable retirement. When you’re in your 60s there’s no way you can catch up.
“Now they’re in a small rental property and in a deep financial hole. I know it sounds cliche but education and early intervention, particularly with young children is essential.”
Mr Gordon, who sits on the Federal Ministerial Expert Advisory Group on Gambling, agrees. “The group had discussed implementing certain poker machine restrictions but nothing was set in stone,” he said.
“We were aiming for outlets to decrease poker machine accessibility and program machines so they don’t lure players for long periods,” Mr Gordon said.
“We also wanted players to have breaks every half hour. There were also plans to implement a card where the patron could load it with cash and once their limit had run out, they were unable to play again for 24-hours. You wouldn’t be able to take the card from venue to venue.
“The idea was for people to make a responsible decision at the start of their night out rather than at the end of the night when they’re intoxicated. These restrictions need to be back on the government’s agenda,” he said.