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Death threats are a sideshow - Wilkie’s pokies plan will work

Once ‘un-Australian’ appears in any debate don’t expect rational argument or evidence. Look no further for proof than the advertising blitz by Clubs Australia and the Australian Hotels Association against…

Pokies players can lose in excess of $1500 an hour. AAP

Once ‘un-Australian’ appears in any debate don’t expect rational argument or evidence. Look no further for proof than the advertising blitz by Clubs Australia and the Australian Hotels Association against intended pokies reform.

At issue is mandatory pre-commitment. It would allow pokies players, especially those with gambling problems, to set limits on losses and time spent, before they get into the grip of the machines.

In its 2010 report the Productivity Commission recommended a full (mandatory) pre-commitment scheme across all States and Territories to “provide a means by which players could voluntarily set personally-defined precommitments and, at a minimum, a spending limit, without subsequently being able to revoke these in the set period”.

In order to secure independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie’s support to form government, Prime Minister Julia Gillard agreed to introduce the scheme. A Parliamentary Joint Committee chaired by Wilkie has been working on the details since January.

The Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform’s report is imminent, and the poker-machine industry - gambling corporations, clubs and pubs - have enlisted the ad men.

The bill will cost them $20 million, we’re told. They can afford it. For the industry, poker machines have been like El Dorado.

A campaign like this was expected, as was all the cant and humbug (even the ‘un-Australian’ epithet, however nauseating).

Why is this reform so important?

To understand this is to understand the truth about pokies.

To say that manufacturers design poker machines so that players lose money is a truism. That machine design is addictive is less well understood, but it is no less true.

The mechanism, long known to psychologists, is the variable-ratio reinforcement schedule. Unpredictable, intermittent wins and ‘near wins’ work on the brain’s dopaminergic system and, in conjunction with lights, sounds and distractors, create powerful effects.

So powerful can these effects be that anyone who spends sufficient time in front of a machine is liable to lose control of time and money. That is, they experience dissociation.

As a result, for some the effect of the machine is best described as addictive. The closest analogy is the effect of cocaine.

A pre-commitment scheme aims to give problem gamblers back some of the control they have lost. It may not be the full answer to problem gambling, but it is surely an important part of it.

Okay, but isn’t mandatory pre-commitment over the top, as the industry ads suggest? No, and to understand why is to understand more of the truth about pokies.

The pokie-industry ads don’t say, as the Productivity Commission did, that “observed player losses in any given hour for a person playing at high intensity will often exceed $1500”.

The industry ads don’t say, as the Productivity Commission did, that 40% to 60% of total losses, that is, the poker-machine industry’s revenues, derive from those with gambling problems.

Nor do they tell us facts like this: a six-month study of 898 suicidal patients who presented to Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital’s emergency department in 2009 found that 20% were problem gamblers.

An earlier (2001-04) Coroners Court of Victoria information system study of Victorian suicides found that 68 of 70 declared gambling suicides were of pokies players or their family members.

What then about jobs?

Won’t a full pre-commitment scheme cut jobs as it cuts a big chunk of losses by problem gamblers? No, and the reason is obvious.

As demand or spending or losses decline in one area they increase in others. The net effect on jobs in the economy is null, as the Productivity Commission also pointed out in both its 2010 and 1999 reports.

The poker-machine industry campaign is based on greed and market power: a power granted by government legislation that is now biting the hand that fed it.

Using animal metaphors also helps us to ruminate on why reform has taken so long in the face of the overwhelming evidence of pokies' harm.

The answer was always that other snouts were in the same problem-gambling trough. State governments' shares in this $12 billion industry swill about in their budgets and thereby the Commonwealth’s.

Andrew Wilkie has challenged that cosy compact between government and industry, and in doing so he reflects the view of the wider public reported in survey after survey.

The only ‘right’ he is infringing is the ‘right’ of an ugly industry to make billions by knowingly creating and then harming problem gamblers.

To pokies players and society as a whole, Wilkie should be a hero.