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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 22:32 GMT 23:32 UK
Fears for New Zealand's Asian gamblers
By Angie Knox
BBC, New Zealand

There has been a 20% increase in people seeking help for gambling problems in New Zealand - and concern is rising over how much these people are losing.

On a Thursday evening in the Riverside Casino in Hamilton, New Zealand's fourth largest city, six young Chinese card players chain smoked furiously as they studied their cards.

"Last bets," called the croupier. The tension was palpable. The cards were played, and one of the men was a winner.

They all laughed as he pulled his chips over towards him, and downed more drinks.

Asians are losing more money than any other group in New Zealand
Behind them, elderly couples fed the banks of pokie machines lining the walls of the casino. The lights flashed and coins streamed down. Another winner.

But in the cold hard light of day, the figures tell a different story.

Gambling losses have more than doubled since the industry was deregulated seven years ago.

Last year, punters lost a total of NZ $1.7bn ( US$ 970m ) - which works out at an average of $400 dollars per person. And Asians are losing more money than any other group.

According to New Zealand's Problem Gambling Committee, the average loss for people seeking help for gambling problems is just over $2,000 in the month before they sought help.

But in the Asian community, that figure is more like $10,000.

John Wong, who runs the Asian Problem Gambling Service, said: "Most Asians are migrants. So most of them bring along with them their whole life savings - in cash. So they have cash available."

Playing table games, blackjack or roulette, they think it is skill-based. They know how to beat the game, but in the end they are the losers
John Wong, Asian Problem Gambling Service

"Most people come to us when they are desperate," said Mr Wong.

"They see counselling as a last resort, because in their culture they seek help within their family or friends. Counselling is a foreign term to them - they don't believe in it and they don't use it."

For most New Zealanders, the favourite way to gamble is on pokie machines - row upon row of flashing, coin-devouring slot machines.

New Zealand has one of the highest number of pokie machines per capita in the world, with one machine for every 146 Kiwis.

But Asian punters favour the casino. John Wong's clients tell him they prefer games of skill.

"Playing table games, blackjack or roulette, they think it is skill-based," he said. "They know how to beat the game, but in the end they are the losers."

Legal changes

New Zealand is preparing to tackle the problem with new legislation.

The Responsible Gambling Bill is slowly making its way through parliament - and is expected to be passed into law by the end of the year.

Dianne Yates, the Labour MP who has been chairing the Select Committee fine-tuning the bill, says it will limit the expansion of the industry and impose a levy on gambling establishments.

"That levy will be paid to the Ministry of Health, which is going to be funding problem gambling services," she said.

As gambling revenues increase, said Ms Yates, more money will automatically go to helping people with gambling problems.

The new law will also make casinos more responsible for enforcing restrictions on problem gamblers.

But psychiatrist Dr Samson Tse, head of Asian research at the University of Auckland's Centre for Gambling Studies, says the proposals do not go far enough.

He said he welcomed the prospect of more money for counselling services and outreach programmes, but said he would like to see further controls on the gambling environment itself.

"Modifying the environment will have a tremendous impact," he said.

"One simple example is the proximity of the ATM or cash machine. Do we allow it to be quite close to the venue, or do we altogether stop having all those ATMs in the gaming facility?"

Who are casino losers?
24 Jul 02  |  UK News
Country profile: New Zealand
02 May 03  |  Country profiles

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