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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK
Who are casino losers?
MPs have urged the government to relax the laws on gambling, saying they don't think it will create social problems. But a similar plan on the other side of the world didn't have such a happy result.

The image of a casino is one of glitz, where you might stumble on James Bond casually playing blackjack.

The reality in Auckland, New Zealand, has not proved to be quite so glamorous.

Auckland's SkyTower
Sky Tower looms large over Auckland
Sky City is the country's largest casino and the first port of call for most tourists. Its soaring 328 metre (1,076 ft) Sky Tower dominates the harbour city's skyline and every week lures thousands to its theatre, restaurants, hotels - and gambling floor.

Most weekdays busloads of senior citizens arrive at Sky City to play what are known as "the pokies" - row upon row of flashing-light, coin devouring slot machines.

While the dire predictions of many casino opponents - gangland takeovers, pawn shops, extortion, money lenders and more prostitution - have proved largely unfounded, the pokies have spread.

They could soon be seen in pubs and bars across Auckland and are now throughout the whole country.

Countrywide spread

Last year New Zealanders gambled NZ$8.4bn (2.5bn) - more than the NZ$7.3bn the country spends on all health services.

UK plans to allow
Advertising of casinos
Use of credit cards
Bingo alongside roulette
Immediate membership
Unlimited prizes
More than a third of this total was spent at what was then just four casinos. But nearly half went into the slots of pokie machines in pubs and clubs.

The total spent on gambling in 1984 - before liberalisation - was just $890 million (264m).

It is the spread of these pokie machines, that Ralph Gerdelan, executive director of New Zealand's Problem Gambling Foundation, says is the result of allowing a government-endorsed casino to set up shop.

"Once you normalise accessibility to large casinos then the rest of the industry says: 'We've got to have it too - if they can have it in that building then why can't we have it down the road in our building?' It makes it very difficult for a regulator to maintain some kind of distinction."

The best intentions of confining electronic gambling to venues where they are strictly controlled, are quickly watered down when they come under commercial pressure from commercial interest groups, he says.

Addiction

An impact study on the Auckland casino conducted by Gerdelan's foundation found the number of problem gamblers asking for help accelerated by more 50% in six months following its opening, a rate which later levelled off to 30%, where it has since stayed.

Help at hand
Commons Culture Committee called on Government to tax gambling to pay for research into problem gambling
One woman who was forced to confront this kind of addiction to the machines at Auckland's Sky City casino was Puao Faumuina, a 22-year-old single mother who left her seven-week-old baby alone, locked in car for three hours while she gambled upstairs.

A security guard found her baby - severely dehydrated, but thankfully alive - screaming in the car, before alerting authorities.

In two years of spending most of her social welfare benefits at the casino, Faumuina's biggest win had been just NZ$1,000 (300). Most of the time she lost.

She has since been ordered by a court to undergo parenting and anti-gambling courses. Sky City, which happily accepted her money, has since banned her from the premises for two years.

Advertising allure

She said she had found it difficult to explain why she kept returning to the casino, but says she was attracted by advertising campaigns promoting regular winners and a desire to escape the stresses of single motherhood.

Slot machine
Slot machines: Spread throughout the country
"It was a way of getting away and forgetting about my troubles, but it just made it worse. Every time I put $2 in, I thought, 'OK, last one, I'm going to go' - but something pulls you towards it. It's hard to walk away,'' she told the New Zealand Herald.

Sky City is one of New Zealand's most successful businesses and is now regarded as a blue chip sharemarket investment.

The casino has 1400 pokie machines and more than 90 gambling tables and has since applied for permission to install another 230 machines and 12 tables.

Help programmes

Numbers of machines outside casinos have almost quadrupled in the past 12 years, from 4,600 in March 1989 to 17,700 at the end of 2001 - the equivalent of two big casinos opening every year.

Roulette wheel
A more common sight in British cities?
A Sky City spokesperson, speaking after last year's Faumuina case, said the company had developed "a comprehensive problem gambling management programme aimed at encouraging problem gamblers not to attend and to seek help."

It had introduced self- barring, which encouraged customers to voluntarily bar themselves from gaming areas. Clocks had recently been installed and alcohol programmes started. There is currently a moratorium on applications for casino licences in New Zealand, which expires next year.

No-one knows what decision the Wellington parliament may make when the moratorium expires, but one thing is clear - the casino owners, and the government through its taxes, will be collecting the winnings.


Do you think the government is right to relax the laws on gambling? Add your views using the form below.

This country has no need of these establishments or the problems they bring, mainly to the less well off in our society trying to improve their lot. We have enough slot-machines as it is, please don't bring in more!
B K Tyler, UK

I frequently visit Las Vegas, and the casinos provide many other forms of entertainment aside from the gambling. They also incorporate some of the biggest and best hotels in the world at very reasonable prices. It is by far the fastest growing city in the US, providing an ever increasing number of jobs.
Andrew Pettigrew, US (UK citizen)

It would be one of the most cynical method of increasing taxes I could imagine. A lot of people (myself included) are mugs. We expect games to be fair and it can take a long time to realise that gambling is fundamentally an unfair game.
Gordon, UK

Yes, we should relax the laws. When I was in Australia I visited similar Casinos to the one in NZ, and I believe they are a great social venue, and a further asset to the local community in terms of jobs and tax revenue. The benefits far outweigh the possible small minority who may become addicted to gambling.
John, Scotland

Despite dire predictions, Ontario has not experienced a huge increase in crime or problem gambling since three large casinos were opened. The first, in Windsor, although managed by a private company, is owned by the provincial government, and in addition to providing a large number of jobs, it puts hundreds of millions of dollars into the provincial coffers each year. Alan T.
Dr A. S. Trenhaile, Canada

Relaxing gambling laws is fine, it would bring a new buoyant industry to the UK creating thousands of jobs and an additional revenue for the Government, HOWEVER, potentially allowing gamblers to use Credit cards is a disaster waiting to happen, no one should be allowed to gamble with money that isn't in their pockets or bank accounts.
Nathan Jones, UK

We already have slot machines in every pub and club in the UK. So that type of addiction cannot increase.
Brian Grazer, UK

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See also:

26 Mar 02 | UK
24 Jul 02 | Politics
26 Mar 02 | Politics
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