Q&A with Proudly Pokies Free
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Q&A with Proudly Pokies Free

Issues/Mental Health , Stories/93 , Issues/Policy
Surry Hills NSW 2010, Australia
21st Jul 2017
Q&A with Proudly Pokies Free
Pokies machines are highly addictive, and the New South Wales government is addicted to the massive revenues they bring in each year. But when the machines themselves can suck anyone in, somebody is bound to lose. Keegan speaks to Tom Lawrence, co-founder of Proudly Pokies Free, about the perils of the pokies.

Throwing a dollar or two into the pokies when you turn 18 is a right of passage in Australia but this love affair is costing the country billions of dollars each year.

Pokies are a staple of any bowlo, local pub or RSL but according to Proudly Pokies Free, a lobby group fighting in support of pokies-free venues, there are more than 300,000 Australians addicted to poker machines and gambling generates some 4.8 billion dollars of revenue for clubs and governments.

On a social level, poker machine related suicides make up 20 per cent of all suicide cases in Victoria's Alfred Hospital, according to Proudly Pokies Free. On top of this, each addict has a negative impact on the lives of seven others around them.

To chew over these startling numbers I sat down with Tom Lawrence, one of the founders of Proudly Pokies Free.

KEEGAN: In your own words, what is Proudly Pokies Free?

TOM: Last year my dad made the documentary, Kaching! Pokie Nation, which is a film about Australia's relationship with the pokies. It explores how they're designed to be addictive. The film was meant to be a springboard so we could launch ourselves into a bit of a campaign.

For me, I've worked in a lot of pubs and clubs, so directly engaging with venues was always going to be the best way to tackle the issue. In New South Wales, 95 per cent of poker machines are in our pubs and clubs, not in casinos. So what we want to do is run a positive, forward-thinking campaign that engages pubs, clubs and venues.

KEEGAN: In Australia, we have 20 per cent of all pokies world wide and more than half of Australian machines are located in New South Wales. Why do we have so many pokies?

TOM: They were proliferated mainly to boost budgets and to raise the revenue of clubs and pubs. Five to eight per cent of the state's budget is bolstered by pokies revenue. It is a money game really. There has been a lot of noise made about it all but the heavy hitters, the powers that be; the clubs and pubs have a huge influence. They have a $50 million war chest to fight any reform. The last time reform tried to come through it was shutdown by the clubs. They learnt their tactics from the NRA, so they know what they're doing.

KEEGAN: With this in mind, what has the reception been towards the campaign from those in the industry?

TOM: We always want to run a positive campaign and because of that we've had a pretty positive reception. We're not going after the clubs themselves, so we haven't had anything bad from them so far. At the moment we're focusing on the positives.

From the clubs and pubs that don't have pokies, we're being well received. We're celebrating their ethos really, and we're here to support proudly pokies free clubs. Everyone is really positive, especially clubs who don't support pokies because of ethical reasons.

KEEGAN: Why are the pokies so addictive?

TOM: It is all in the design. They're built on every level to get you sucked in. They're all designed so you have dopamine released in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical in our brains that works around pleasure and reward. One tactic they use is large amounts of near-misses. The machine will withhold a winning combination so you only just get close enough that you get a hit of dopamine to your brain. Poker machines hand out 10 times more near-misses than any other gambling game.

The games are all digital, and because they're digital a lot of maths and algorithms are involved, so you're playing against the sums. The math is designed to keep you hanging and the design is made so you keep on playing.

KEEGAN: In terms of addiction, are there any differences between more high profile gambling like horse racing and poker machine gambling?

TOM: Not really, because poker machines will draw anyone in. If there were a bunch of mega-clubs in the Inner West or in the Eastern suburbs then you'd have new issues with gambling. It can happen to anyone. There are studies that say wealthy people and upper class people are just as likely to become addicted as anyone else.

KEEGAN: How do you work with local clubs and pubs to raise awareness of all this?

TOM: At this stage we're identifying and promoting the venues that don't have pokies. It is a good way to encourage conscious consumerism in the public, and also effective in distinguishing between pokies venues and pokies free venues.

One of the best ways we're connecting with the venues is through different screenings of the film. We've had three sold out screenings so far. We do a pokies free venue of the month and we'll promote that on our Facebook page (pokies free venue of the month). In the future, we're looking at having pokies free pub weekends where we encourage people to visit different pubs that don't have pokies. So far everything we've done has been in New South Wales, so we're raising money at the moment to expand into other states.

The first step for us is making people think deeply about the effects of the pokies. There might be people who still sit on the fence, but this kind of stuff is hopefully just a primer for what is to come. Eventually we would like to build a business case and a community case to put pressure on the venues that still have pokies.

KEEGAN: What is the end game?

TOM: We're not trying to ban pokies, because that is never going to happen; it isn't really our style. Take the tobacco industry for example. It was a combination of preventative campaigning, so trying to get people to stop smoking, and also legislative reform. It all happens hand in hand and it is a long process.

There are people tackling legislative reform, but that isn't our sphere. For us it is about a cultural shift. For our generation especially pokies have always been around in pubs. It has become so normalised for us, we don't usually think about it. We want to support legislative reform, but we also want to influence a wider cultural change away from pokies that says they're no longer an acceptable part of our culture.

If you think you may have a problem with the pokies or with any other type of gambling addiction, you can call Gambling HELP's free and confidential helpline on 1800 858 858.

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