They are the machines that anti-gambling campaigners in Australia say have the addictive “force of cocaine” that are fuelling an avalanche of debt, divorce and misery.
Gambling losses in Australia are at a record high after punters frittered away almost A$24bn (£14bn; $18bn) in a year, according to data compiled by the Queensland state government this month. More than half was lost on poker or slot machines at pubs and clubs.
“Gambling in Australia is the equivalent of guns in America,” asserts Tim Costello, a spokesman for the Alliance for Gambling Reform. “The gambling industry has captured politics really in the way the National Rifle Association does in America, so we aim to reform that.”
Australia has 20% of the world’s poker machines, known colloquially as the “pokies”. In Western Australia they are confined to a single casino, but they are common elsewhere.
Mr Costello believes that gambling stress pushes more than 400 Australians to suicide each year, a figure that has been given credence by Australia’s Productivity Commission. Mr Costello mostly blames devices that are “built for addiction, releasing the dopamine (a mood-setting chemical) that hits your brain with the force of cocaine.”
Addicts, he tells the BBC, “describe entering a zone where their problems simply dematerialise – it completely neutralises the anxiety”.
Australia has more slot machines per person than almost any other country. It has nearly 200,000 in total.
For many gamblers, the machines are just a bit of harmless fun enjoyed with a beer and banter, but for others their flashing lights, spinning wheels and celebratory sounds can be mesmeric, and make losers feel like winners.
Success or failure has nothing to do with skill. These devices are simply computers set up to randomly select outcomes, and are built to excite and entice.
‘The machines own you’
On a sunny Saturday, a small group has gathered for a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous (GA) in a hall at the Exodus Foundation, a charity in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield.
Hands find comfort wrapped around polystyrene cups of tea and coffee as those seeking help quietly wait for the weekly session to start. Some have squandered vast amounts of money on the pokies, while homes, jobs and the trust of loved ones have also been lost.
“I am 19 years old. I only recently came into the world of gambling,” a young woman tells me.
It is her first time at a GA meeting. She has come with a friend but is understandably nervous.
“I have tried not to gamble, but I am signed up with a couple of [social] clubs and I try my hardest not to go there,” she says. “But usually when I do have money to go there, I like to gamble and spend my money. Financially it has been really straining because you obviously lose more than you win.”
The meeting is run by Les, a community support worker. He is in his early 60s and also speaks openly about his addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling.
“Even though your drudgery [of] life outside mightn’t be that crash hot, you go into a gambling room suddenly you are important because they want your money and we fall for that illusion,” he says. “You don’t have a life. The machines own you.”
A poker machine manufacturer has been sued in Australia’s federal court by a former gambling addict, who alleged the devices mislead and deceive players. The company has rejected the claims, insisting its products are scrutinised by regulators and comply with rigorous standards.
- Former addict sues over slot machines
In July, the Victorian government said the number of gaming machines in the southern state would be frozen for 25 years under “harm minimisation” measures.
Responding to record-high gambling losses of $24bn, a spokesperson for Victoria’s Minister of Gaming and Liquor Regulation, Marlene Kairouz, said in a statement that “these nationwide statistics… show more work needs to be done across the country. Victoria is now leading the way on reforms to help gamblers stick to their limits and to tackle gambling-related harm.”
A BBC request for comment from the New South Wales government was “politely declined”.
Highest losses in world
Next year, a national self-exclusion register is due to start to allow problem gamblers to effectively ban themselves from all online gambling sites and apps.
A spokeswoman for Responsible Wagering Australia, an industry body representing online operators including bet365, Betfair and Ladbrokes, said the measure would “help protect vulnerable members of the…community”.
It is estimated that 200,000 Australians have a “high-level problem” with gambling, while up to twice as many more have difficulties at a “lower level”. There’s a ripple effect, where corrosive habits can impinge on friends and family, according to Dr Charles Livingstone, a gambling researcher at Monash University in Melbourne.
“Millions of Australians are directly affected by gambling. It is a serious problem and it is getting worse,” he tells the BBC.
Australians spend on average about A$1,300 per capita a year on gambling, he says. The next highest is around A$600 in Singapore.
“We far exceed any other other country on Earth and the reason for that is because we have so many gambling opportunities,” Dr Livingstons says.
“We had a big bang deregulation in the early ’90s. Gambling really took off and it hasn’t really looked back.”