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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 January 2007, 15:04 GMT
Australia in thrall of gambling mania
Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

It is the world record of which Australia is least proud: More than 80% of its adult population gambles, the highest rate on the planet.

Melbourne Cup
The prestigious Melbourne Cup is also a huge gambling event
From the Melbourne Cup - the horse race that stops the nation - to "pokie" machines in the pubs, clubs and branches of the Returned and Services Leagues and the bookmakers (or the TAB as it is known here) and in bars - it is everywhere.

As one reformed gambler put it to me, Australians would even place a bet on two flies climbing up a wall.

For many, the jingles and electronic clatter of the "pokies" have become just as quintessentially Australian sounds as the call of a kookaburra.

Growth industry

Since the mid-1990s, mega-casinos have also occupied a much more conspicuous and commanding spot on Australia's gambling landscape.

Star City in Sydney is a gambling complex reputedly the size of seven football fields.

You think Las Vegas has got poker machines? New South Wales blows it out of the water... It's crazy, it's insanity
Tom Simpson
Reformed gambling addict

Then there is the Conrad Treasury Casino in Brisbane, which occupies a Monte Carlo-style heritage building.

The biggest is probably the massive Crown Entertainment Complex in Melbourne, one of the world's largest, which claims to attract more than 12 million visitors a year.

The opening of these casinos helps explain another of Australia's dubious records: How a country with the 53rd largest population has the most gaming machines.

This staggeringly, is a fifth of the world's supply.

Over the past decade, the legalisation of gaming machines and the increase in the number of casinos has contributed to a dramatic increase in the amount spent on gambling.

Since 1990-91, real per capita expenditure has increased from $A470.60 (US$360) to $A931.64 in 1999-2000. The figure now is likely to be much higher.

Estimated individual weekly spend
Clothes - $A18.67
Gambling - $A17.52
Petrol - $A15.27
Alcohol - $A10.99

One more recent study, published in October last year, suggested that Australians spend more money on gambling ($A17.52 each week) than they do on alcohol ($A10.99) and petrol ($A15.27), and almost as much as they do on clothes ($A18.67).

It is now estimated that more than 2% of the population have a significant gambling problem.

Social cost?

Reformed gambler Mark Henson now rehabilitates addicts

"I tell people sometimes I slept with the devil," says Mark Henson, who lost his job, his home, and came close to ending up in jail in order to feed his habit.

"I did things I never thought I would stoop down to do. In the end, I just had to gamble to get the money to do it. I was no different from a heroine user or alcoholic."

"I would lie and manipulate and even fool myself. I was in that much denial. If I earned $A500 a week, I gambled $A1500."

After 12 years of what he calls "reckless gambling," and four years of recovery, Mark now helps others try to kick their gambling addiction.

Tom Simpson is another reformed addict.

What angers him now is that the governments - state and national - have allowed the gambling problem to mushroom because of their own "addiction".

This is a craving for the tax revenue which the gaming machines and casinos bring in.

State cashes in

In 1973, Australia's first legal casino opened at Wrest Point Hotel in Hobart, Tasmania.

From then until 1998, state government proceeds from gaming increased 20-fold from $200m to $3.8bn.

An average of 12% of state and territory revenue comes from gambling.

The federal government also cashes in, through Australia's equivalent of VAT.

Simpson is critical of government support for the gambling industry

"There's 99,723 poker machines in the state of New South Wales, more per capita than anywhere else on planet earth," Tom Simpson argues.

"You think Las Vegas has got poker machines? New South Wales blows it out of the water, and in the next couple of months they are actually introducing more pokie machines."

"It's crazy it's insanity. But once again it's creating revenue. How do you stop it? I'm not sure," he says.

Asked about the opening of a new generation of casinos in Britain, he has a simple message - Beware!.

Australia offers a glimpse of the future waiting the UK, he claims.

It is worth remembering, of course, that the vast majority of Australian gamblers do so responsibly.

The casino and club owners also try to promote sensible gambling, with leaflets and handouts explaining the small probability of winning.

There are statutory warning signs on the machines themselves and along with showing digital clocks so that people know how long they have been playing.

The government has also proposed a ban on interactive and internet gambling, likely to come into effect later in the year.

But it's too late to reverse the trend, according to Mark Henson.

"They've created a monster," he says. "And now they can't control it."

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