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Too close to home: people who live near pokie venues at risk

Living close to a pokie venue is a risky business. This was a key finding from our comprehensive 2010 survey of gambling behaviour in the urban centres of the Northern Territory. Our research found that…

Research has found that if you live closer to poker machines, you are more likely to gamble – and gamble more often – than if you lived further away. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Living close to a pokie venue is a risky business. This was a key finding from our comprehensive 2010 survey of gambling behaviour in the urban centres of the Northern Territory.

Our research found that if you live close to poker machines you are more likely to gamble – and gamble more often – than someone who lives further away. And the more you play the pokies, the greater your risk of developing gambling problems.

This finding, while perhaps unsurprising, is important because few studies have actually directly tested the relationship between residential proximity to pokie venues and gambling behaviour.

We have known for some years that, in Australia, the more pokies there are in an area, the higher the rate of gambling problems in that area. For example, a 2009 meta-analysis of 34 studies in Australia and New Zealand estimated that each 100 poker machines are associated with 80 problem gamblers, as per the graph below. This suggests that the residents of areas with a higher density of pokies are more likely to suffer from the ill-effects of gambling.

Adapted from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14459790903257981

What we haven’t known until now is the specific effect of residential distance from pokie venues on the frequency of visitation, gambling participation, and gambling-related harm. For example, if someone lives 500 metres from a pokie venue, are they actually likely to gamble more – and more likely to develop gambling problems – than someone living ten kilometres away? If so, how much more would they gamble?

At what point, specifically, do venues become “too close to home”?

Methods

To measure the effect of residential proximity to pokies on risk of gambling harm, we sent a questionnaire to every household in the NT to which Australia Post would deliver mail.

We asked over 7000 people which pokie venue they visited most frequently, how often they gambled, and a standard set of questions used to measure problem gambling. We then calculated the travel distance by road from each household to all 64 visited pokie venues in our study area.

Because gambling venues tend to cluster in poorer suburbs, we adjusted for individual and neighbourhood socio-economic status in all our analyses.

Frequency of venue visitation and distance

We found that the closer you live to a gambling venue, the more often you visit – as per the figure below. Specifically, people who lived 100 metres from their favourite venue visited an estimated average of 3.4 times per month. This compared to an average of 2.8 times per month for people living one kilometre away, and 2.2 times per month for people living ten kilometres away.

This distance effect applied to both casinos and pubs/clubs, although casino patrons tended to visit less frequently than other venue-goers, regardless of the distance to the venue.

Respondents who live closer to their favourite pub or club visit it much more frequently. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14459795.2012.664159

Gambling participation and distance

Residential distance to venue also plays a significant role in gambling participation. The figure below shows that, for pubs and clubs, the estimated average probability of playing the pokies drops from 31% for someone living 100 metres away from their venue, to 21% for someone living one kilometre away, and down to 14% for someone ten kilometres away.

Put another way, gamblers are more likely to visit venues closer to their homes than non-gamblers.

This distance effect was not evident for casino-goers. While distance played an important role in predicting gambling participation at pubs and clubs – especially within the first five kilometres travelled to the venue – people were just as likely to gamble in a casino regardless of how far they travelled to get there.

Respondents whose favourite venue was close to their home were much more likely to play the pokies on their last visit. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14459795.2012.664159

Lessons

The burden of gambling harm falls most heavily upon people who live close to a gambling venue or who visit casinos. The rate of gambling harm in our study among those living within 100 metres of any gambling venue was over 50% higher than among those living ten kilometres from a venue.

The spatial distribution of pokies does impact actual gambling behaviour and therefore gambling harm at the local level. A policy free-for-all that allows the introduction of a greater number of poker machines into more locations is likely to increase the overall rates of problem gambling.

For regulators, more stringent licensing policies which limit the travel distance between pokie venues and residential areas, particular low-income ones, could reduce problem gambling. The Victorian government has suggested destination-style gambling (that is, concentrating gambling in fewer, larger venues), but in 2008 discarded the notion on the grounds that problem gambling would not be reduced.

Our research challenges this assumption. Our findings suggest that the removal of pokies from residential areas may decrease gambling harm in the long-run, although as we have noted elsewhere, implementing a destination-style gambling strategy may entail other risks, such as higher rates of problem gambling in large venues.

Gambling in casinos is less influenced by distance travelled compared to clubs and pubs. AAP/David Crosling

Our finding that gambling in casinos is less influenced by distance travelled compared to clubs and pubs is significant in the current political climate of intense casino liberalisation. We already know that large venues like casinos are more dangerous than smaller ones. Our current study makes clear that they also have much greater pulling power than smaller venues.

This means that casinos, rather than locating close to low-income suburbs, can rely on their superior attractive power to pull in punters from tens of kilometres away. To attract more gamblers they focus on upgrading their facilities, frequently competing for pokie dollars with hotels and clubs rather than with interstate or international casinos.

And being strategically located, casinos can harvest substantial pokie takings from an entire city. A proliferation of new casinos is likely to lead to an intensified burden of gambling harm across an urban area.

However, for pubs and clubs, our findings suggest that gambling harm can be influenced by their location. Gambling participation can be reduced by keeping pokie venues further away from residential areas, particularly poorer ones. And this is something that, at least in theory, can be influenced by regulators.

Ultimately, for those concerned with limiting the community fallout from poker machines, both increases in the size of venues and their continued dispersal into new venues should be resisted.

Join the conversation

7 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    I know this article is about pokie access, but I wonder if the same goes for pubs, tabs, cigarette outlets etc.

    I t would seem to me to be axiomatic that propinquity = problems.

    But we get back to the nanny state arguments.

    Some older folk find going to the pokies a great outlet, and often the only break from a very mundane life at home. Distance becomes a big problem.

    Do we regulate and micro-manage every avenue that has a propensity for problems?

    NO.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      'Gambling participation can be reduced by keeping pokie venues further away from residential areas, particularly poorer ones.'

      Restricting what 'the poor' can do, for their own good, is horrifying.

      It's a return to the Elizabethan Poor Law.

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  2. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    Hi folks, am I wrong, but doesn't your graph supporting the following statement: "For example, a 2009 meta-analysis of 34 studies in Australia and New Zealand estimated that each 100 poker machines are associated with 80 problem gamblers, as per the graph below. " come from the study by Storer et al (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14459790903257981). That graph (on p 236) gives an r squared value of 0.3745 which would tend to indicate a poor correlation between the regression line and the data. The only thing the graph really says is that there could be a slight upward trend.

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    1. Francis Markham

      PhD Candidate, The Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University

      In reply to John Phillip

      Hi John, thanks for your comment.

      Clearly, there are more factors that determine the measured problem gambling prevalence in each state than just the number of pokies. Other factors include state-by-state variation in pokie regulations, variation in the regulation of other gambling modes, as well as the myriad of uncertainties associated with the survey-based estimates of problem gambling prevalence used in the first graph (the relative standard error due to sampling alone is typically 20%, even ignoring the substantial inconsistencies in survey design). Given this, I would be a little surprised to find a much stronger relationship between number of pokies and estimated problem gambling prevalence rates.

      Nevertheless, the data does suggest that the number of pokies in a jurisdiction is correlated with problem gambling prevalence. That there are also other factors involved in determining the number of problem gamblers is not a contradictory observation.

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    2. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Francis Markham

      Thanks for the reply Francis. I had a couple of questions. Firstly, have you got any data on the change in the prevalence of gambling problems in Qld since pokies were allowed in the 70(s) (or was i the 80s?)? Secondly, I wondered if you'd done any research on the effects of the legalisation of horse racing betting on those stats? Just asking as I was battling through the 'form guide' in the Courier to get to other things and noticed how much of the paper was taken up by it. Cheers.

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    3. Francis Markham

      PhD Candidate, The Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University

      In reply to John Phillip

      The first prevalence study in Queensland was the national study undertaken by the Productivity Commission in 1999, although large studies have been conducted in Queensland every two or three years since then. Because of this, it is difficult to know what the impact of pokies has been in Queensland, specifically. It is worth noting though that the PC's 1999 national study, the only study to provide a consistent comparison between states, found that WA, had a prevalence rate of around 1/3 of the national…

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