another open letter on pre-commitment and poker machines

I had planned for today to be a quiet day on the blog… no such luck. It’s been a week since the report on the proposed pre-commitment reforms for poker machines was released, and as the word coming back from the Independents still suggests that they hold a number of concerns, I thought I’d write them a letter. I sent the following email to Bob Katter, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Crook. Wonder if they’ll write back?

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Good afternoon,

My name is Tom Cummings. My submission to the Joint Select Committee on Problem Gambling, which was extensively referenced in the report that was released last week, spoke of my past as a poker machine addict, how I’ve dealt with my problem and my thoughts on the proposed reforms.

I understand that you have concerns about the proposed reforms, and I appreciate your position on this matter. There is a lot of conflicting information flying around about problem gamblers in general, poker machine problem gamblers in particular, and the impact of poker machines on our local and wider communities. While I am not a recognised expert in this field, I do have something that most commenters do not, and that is intimate experience with actually being a poker machine problem gambler.

There are some points being raised in the current debate that I would like to clarify, and I would be more than happy to discuss them further with you if you so wished.

* Problem gamblers will circumvent any restrictions by buying or swapping additional cards or setting unreasonably high betting limits.

The point here is that the vast majority of poker machine addicts do NOT want to maintain their addiction. In general poker machine addicts do not wake up in the morning thinking “how will I gamble today?”; they wake up thinking “please don’t let me gamble today!”. Poker machine addicts are crying out for the tools to manage and ultimately beat their addiction.

I never walked into a gaming venue intending to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars; I almost always had a very clear idea of how much I was willing to spend. But once I started playing, those good intentions went out the window. I have spoken to a number of other former problem gamblers and the story is the same. Setting limits PRIOR to playing the pokies is something that would be embraced by poker machine problem gamblers. Naturally there would be some who would try and get around this, but they would be the exception rather than the rule.

* Poker machine problem gamblers will simply migrate to another less-controlled form of gambling.

This statement is widely repeated, and it is simply not true. All of the available research refutes this idea. Speak to any gambling counsellor and the message is clear: poker machine addicts are addicted to pokies, not gambling.

I have had no problem with any other form of gambling before, during or since my poker machine addiction. I play Powerball every week, I don’t bet on sports, I occasionally play poker, I very occasionally bet on horses… none of these activities has any form of hold on me. But poker machines are a different story. I simply could not stop playing the pokies. Once I finally did break free of my addiction, I wasn’t looking around for another form of gambling to take their place, for it wasn’t gambling that I was addicted to. It was poker machines.

* These reforms are anti-gambling, they are designed to hurt the clubs industry and will shut down small clubs.

In all honesty, ClubsAustralia and ClubsNSW are responsible for promoting this line of thought. They have a long history of attacking anything that may threaten their gaming operations, from the introduction of poker machines to NSW pubs, to tax hikes, to smoking bans… all were cited as spelling the end of the clubs industry. Clearly that hasn’t happened.

The reality is that these reforms have been tailored specifically to address these concerns. Giving smaller clubs more time to comply (until 2018) and setting up a transitional fund to help with implementation costs are two concessions that will go a long way towards ensuring the future viability of these clubs. Additionally, the extra time gives these clubs the opportunity to explore other revenue streams, so they can reduce their dependence on poker machine revenue. Many clubs are already doing just that; look at Revesby Worker’s Club, who are building a commercial centre which will slash their dependence on revenue generated by their poker machines. Such developments can only provide better facilities for the community, while minimising the reliance on poker machines for revenue.

I don’t expect you to take my word as gospel on any of this, but please be aware that these reforms have not been designed to hurt the gambling industry, or our clubs and pubs. They have been designed to give poker machine problem gamblers the tools to manage their addiction, and minimise the harm they can cause to themselves and others. More importantly, these reforms will have a significant impact on the development of problem gambling behaviours in future poker machine players. That is why they are so important; these reforms are the only measures being discussed that focus on prevention rather than cure. It is all well and good for the industry to talk about counselling, self-exclusion and other measures aimed at problem gamblers… I for one would prefer measures that help stop people becoming problem gamblers in the first place. That is what these reforms will do.

As a former problem gambler, I urge you to support these reforms… and I thank you for taking the time to read what I have to say. I would be more than happy to discuss any of these points further with you.

Best regards,
Thomas Cummings

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12 Responses

  1. Libby Mitchell says:

    Great letter Tom. It hits the spot re problem gamblers not wanting to gamble and to introduce the toolkit that would prevent it from occurring or continuing.

    At the end of the day Independents must weigh up…will they lose more votes from supporting or denying the reforms. I believe that they will lose all credibility with the majority of their constituents if they try to preserve a dangerous pokies product and miserably irresponsible gambling industry.

    Perhaps these men should read the comments after news articles because similar conversations areno doubt occurring in the loungerooms of the voters who will make or break their political careers.

    Whilst they sit and wonder and doubt and cause yet more delays, an opposing force is welling up…to BAN pokies. That would seem to indicate that the time for ‘wondering’ may be coming to an end? Surely it is now obvious that the public is not buying the gambling industry spin?…and nor should Independents if they want to stay in parliament.

  2. Braveheart says:

    It is a good letter, Tom, and I appreciate your continued efforts.

    However, I think you point about ‘not hurting’ the gaming industry and pubs and clubs is not a strong one. The reforms will curb a voracious industry and perhaps demonstrate to the clubs that economic dependence on pokies is not an ethical strategy and cannot go unchallenged. Anything else once more puts ALL the blame and responsibility onto the individual. That is just not fair or just. The State regulates a number of industries in the name of community safety, why not the gambling industry? Some if s would say that the current Sate regulation of socially harmful industries is not enough but that is another question.

    Your letter somehow shifts responsibility to the individual and contradicts much of the argument about machine safety and unbridled availability. Did you mean to do that? I doubt it.

    The industry is voracious and the resistance to the proposed reforms indicates this without question, in my opinion. People will still get hooked on electronic gaming machines – make no mistake – but the reforms do put some restraints on the industry and will lessen some of the harm.

    As I said in another part of this forum, the reforms are better than nothing but they will not completely remove the problem. We should not stop with these reforms if they are successful. There needs to be ongoing preventative and support strategies.

    You have inadvertently touched on an interesting question. When does individual responsibility kick in? When can the individual gambler say ‘I will no longer do this’ with confidence? I suspect it depends very much on the person’s own psychological, physical and spiritual resources as well as the personal and social support networks s/he has. Another interesting discussion.

    Compulsory pre-commitment will make gamblers think. It places a barrier in the tunnel of compulsion. It’s good for those reasons. It’s good for the individual BUT it also restricts the industry. Such restrictions are VERY good indeed.

    We don’t know how much the clubs will be “harmed”. They may be inspired to look for other forms of economic sustenance. Maybe the community will have to develop other forms of social support and connectedness. That can’t be a bad thing.

    I have no sympathy at all for the hotels. They are purely ‘for profit’ organisations and it is about time someone tightened their gambling and alcohol taps. Gambling and alcohol problems are currently two of the most significant social issues of our times. They both are implicated in terrible personal and community harm.

  3. cyenne says:

    Braveheart,

    Thanks for your comments… my point about the lesser impact on the industry and pubs & clubs was written that way intentionally. This letter was sent to the MPs who will most likely hold the deciding votes in whether or not these reforms proceed… and they’re being lobbied hard by the industry, and inundated with claims that clubs in their constituencies will be forced to close. They have ALL said that they cannot support reforms that will shut down clubs and, in doing so, impact on their constituents. Regardless of my thoughts about these clubs, or the industry in general, I wanted to make the point that these claims are overblown, and that the reforms have been tailored to minimise that possibility.

    I must say I disagree that my letter points the finger at individuals, but if that’s your interpretation then I can’t argue with that! Again, my intention was to counter the claims by the industry that problem gamblers are beyond help… that they will do what they can, in any way, to gamble whenever and wherever they can. I do agree, however, that these reforms MUST be the first step in a process of significant on-going change to the gambling industry in this country. Poker machine design needs to be overhauled, along with the guidelines governing machine availability and numbers. Following on from there, the “growth” industries of online and sports betting, to name two, are crying out for regulation… but yes, we have to start somewhere.

  4. Braveheart says:

    The pubs and clubs will see as hurtful and harmful anything which curbs their access to the huge community expenditure on pokie machines. I think the reforms have in fact been designed to draw back the extent of COMMUNITY and individual harm. I’m not sure you can say that “….to give poker machine problem gamblers the tools to manage their addiction, and minimise the harm they can cause to themselves and others.” Do you see my point that this absolves the industry of any responsibility?

    I also wonder whether once an individual has succumbed to the compulsiveness of pokie machine use (or addiction as some prefer to say) that they can safely use the machines again.

    One last point, given that pre-commitment will not apply to machines identified as low intensity, it is likely that these machines will still cause huge problems for those who use them. People who use 1c and 2c machines are more often (but not always) lower income people for whom the loss of a few hundered dollars is as a serious as the loss of a few thousand to someone more well heeled. Good wins are still possible on these ‘low intensity’ machines with comparatively low bets so the inducement is still major.

    To be honest, I see the proposed pre-commitment as more significant in curbing (causing hurt/harm/ restriction?) to the gaming industry than in helping problem gamblers manage their addictions. The industry, including clubs, promoting itself as a victim is not credible although I have some sympathy for the predicaments of SOME of the more community oriented clubs such as the RSLs.

    The reforms may also provide aa barrier to those with the vulnerability to the addictive/compulsive behaviour. In this sense they could be called preventative but this is not major (in my view).

    The discussion is good and healthy. I look forward to more.

  5. Braveheart says:

    Tom, we cross posted.

    I would not have said that you were ‘pointing the finger’ at problem gamblers, but not acknowledging the social context of gambling and the role that unsafe machines and unrestricted availability play in the development of problem gambling allows blame to be laid solely at the feet of the compulsive gambler. Sorry about the long sentence!

    Educated parliamentariand should not have any difficulty in understanding this but they do! Andrew Wilkie gets it though. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for all the work you do. I apreciate it and am so glad for a forum where these issues can be discussed.

  6. cyenne says:

    Heh, we very nearly cross-posted again! I was mid-way through replying to your second comment when the third came through. πŸ™‚

    There are a lot of points we agree on… and the social context (availability of machines and their inherent dangerous nature) is certainly one of them. I didn’t address it in my letter, which was mainly written to refute some of the specific claims by the industry… but there’s no doubt that machine design needs to change. I’ve banged on about this often enough! The technology has exploded well past the ability of current legislation to cope, and caught the public unawares.

    Something else we agree on: if someone has a problem with poker machines, then they can never play them safely again. The only way to beat this kind of addiction is to stay away. That’s one thing that constantly infuriates me about the clubs, they claim these reforms are designed to allow problem gamblers to play safely, and that’s rubbish. What they WILL do for existing problem gamblers is slow them down, give them pause… which in many cases will be what is needed to prove to the player that they have a problem.

    One last thing; I personally think that the preventative aspect of these reforms is crucial. While the actual game-play of the machines is not changing, the nature of the way money is spent on them is… all future pokie players will have to think about what they’re gambling (high-intensity), or accept that there are basic limitations on what they can spend (low-intensity). That in itself is a fundamental change to the way poker machines currently operate… people massively underestimate how much they spend on poker machines. This will help change that.

    And thanks for the kind words πŸ™‚ I’m just happy that this little black & grey blog can make some sort of a difference!

  7. Libby Mitchell says:

    Tom…great to see you support the need for safety measures eg different [safer?] machine design. Please also include that other fundamental consumer safety measure…the transaction record…that allows for more accurate personal budgeting, moderating and redirecting of spending because what was spent can later be reviewed?

    I am appalled that so few people are picking up on this crucially important consumer safety point that IS already protected by our consumer laws? We have too few key drivers to play already and it is beyond me to explain why this point has not been amplified. Sure it may be questioned by the industry….but that objection would get nowhere…as it would fly in the face of the intent of our consumer laws to say that the law does not apply to pokies gambling consumers.

  8. Libby Mitchell says:

    I have much less sympathy for clubs now that I have learned just where the money comes from that they then ‘donate’ to community groups. In my home locality Gippsland, the Latrobe City Council has foregone 100% rates fees….for 110% return in community grants etc….that is disgraceful and the whole ‘donating’ bit stinks. A smokescreen….a misleading ploy to increase community dependence, acceptance and support. Just charge rates and be done with it…

  9. Braveheart says:

    Libby, I don’t know why the consumer protection laws have not been applied to pokie machines. Perhaps the science behind this has not been explained, promoted or accepted? It is easy to see how products like children’s toys, flammable night wear and the like can be unsafe. The safety issues of pokie machines are not easy to explain to non-users. It is much easier for them to see gambling as individual pathology.

    People like Charles Livingston from Monash University might know. He has pushed the product safety line consistently.

    I think that consumer protection may come under the Department of Justice which also regulates gambling so there may be an inherent conflict of interest for Government here. That would not be new, however :).

    It would be useful to have more discussion about what would make machines safer. I must revisit the Productivity Commission Report because I thought they wold have done that.

  10. Libby Mitchell says:

    Thanks and good points Braveheart. People need education to overcome lacks here…not an illegal system that is allowed, because nobody has complained.

    Product safety in terms of consumer safety needs to be seen in two aspects, regarding poker machines I believe…gaming machine design safety and venue operational safety.

    Sometimes the lines here get a bit blurred. For example, provision of transaction records comes under operational safety in my opinion. Sure the machine is designed to cater for receipts, or not….. so it is ‘designed safely…or not’ to issue receipts. However the operational conditions seem to me to be more influential.

    If we look at the machine only there are glaring faults…eg subliminal messaging, near misses, spinning / hypnotic effects, losses disguised as wins, fast spins, high bet limits, and all the rest…BUT…

    We also need to look at that machine in context of its consumer service / operating environment…eg registration of ALL pokies gamblers; use of ‘smart card’ with photo ID for ALL regular, local pokies gamblers, provision of warning materials to ALL pokies gamblers including the blind, illiterate and intellectually challenged before they ever gamble; reducing venue opening hours; having one time of opening / closing for all venues; provision of transaction records and the list goes on…

    AND…the first aspects that should be dealt with would be those that are already legally covered as these are easiest and fastest to target for change….or the aspects that are covered by the gambling industry codes of practice. This self-regulated industry has some very dodgy codes!

    Mind you….FIRST UP is the need to separate the gaming and consumer affairs portfolios. As you noted…a HUGE conflict of interest that must NOT be tolerated any more.

  11. Braveheart says:

    Thanks for your reply, Libbie.

    I might do some checking into what the Consumer Affairs definition of ‘safety’ is. To be honest, I don’t have a great deal of confidence in Consumer affairs, having gotten nowhere several years ago with a complaint about a particular brand of safety matches that would sent little flame rockets everywhere. Got burned with that in more than one sense πŸ™‚

    There is emerging evidence and public discussion about the safety of pokie machines and I wonder whether anyone has sought legal advice under consumer legislation? Of course, people might see warnings as being enough.

    Not everyone succumbs to the trance effect, either. Some people are just there for the apparent camaraderie and welcoming ambience of the venues. Trouble is, we just don’t know enough about patterns of use and people who get into deep water with the machines.

    I do know that the Productivity Commission acknowledged that most of the losses come from problem gamblers but I must go back to the report to see the evidence.

  12. Libby Mitchell says:

    Braveheart just as we rush around turning lights off when we see a high electricity bill at home…so we slow our spending, pokies consumers would very much benefit from receiving the transaction record for their pokies spending, that the law does promise is their legal right.

    This concept is not so much a question of product safety as consumer safety. To ignore the value of the law is to ignore the logic behind consumer protection generally. One would have to ask why the law is there at all? Pokies gamblers are simply not receiving their legal rights…and that is really not open to negotiation I would not think. The written law is most clear on the topic. As ineffectual as a consumer body might be, we should not tolerate that…but right now it seems to be a well accepted ‘given’ that consumer laws can be ignored.

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