An Aussie shift on gambling

Restrictions on new slot machines and on-line games set to take effect.

Gabriela Byrne's relationship with Australia's slot machines began after she had an argument with her boss. "This little voice popped up in my head and said: 'Why don't you go to the pub and forget about it?' " So she did.

Within months, the afternoon Ms. Byrne spent dropping money into the quasi-ubiquitous machines called "pokies" turned into a habit. She was soon losing as much as A$1,500 (US$780) in a day.

"I tell people I had a love affair with a poker machine," says Byrne, who now runs a program for people battling gambling addictions. "You're like a different person when you're in front of them. Reality doesn't exist. It's just you and the machine."

But two years after the release of a 1,000-page government report on gambling, state and federal governments here have begun to gently impose limits on how Australians gamble. And activists say they have seen a marked change in public opinion, which they attribute to the report.

Australians, the government's report found, not only gambled away A$11 billion a year, but they also on average lost twice what their peers in the United States did. What's more, Australia's 300,000 or so "problem gamblers" - people who, like Byrne, ended up hooked - accounted for a third of those losses, thanks in part to the access they had to one-fifth of the world's one-armed bandits.

Australians have long argued they have a special relationship with gambling. From the time the first convicts arrived in 1788, the story goes, white Australians have gambled on just about everything from the toss of two coins - a game known as "two up" - to thoroughbred horses.

But since the report first documented the extent of Australian gambling, "There's been a definite change in attitude," says the Rev. Tim Costello, a Baptist minister who is one of Australia's most vocal opponents of gambling. "Eighty-five percent of Australians now say gambling is out of control."

Legislatively, the changes have come in baby steps.

Sydney's home state of New South Wales is one of a number of states that have imposed moratoriums on new slot- machine licenses, for example. And next week, Australia's federal Parliament is expected to pass a partial ban on online gambling that would prohibit local companies from offering casino games like blackjack to Australians over the Internet.

Critics say the changes so far are largely symbolic. Pokies can already be found in almost every pub in New South Wales. And the proposed federal ban on gambling online exempts betting on sports. It also prohibits neither Australian companies from setting up Internet casinos serving players overseas, nor Australians from using casinos operated from overseas.

Activists are still pushing for more significant changes like the slowing down of the rate at which pokies can take gamblers' money and a ban on smoking in pokie venues. Almost all problem gamblers are smokers, they claim.

They've also attacked the notion of Australia having a cultural link to gambling. In a recent book, Mr Costello argued that the access to gambling that governments have historically allowed, rather than any ingrained cultural affinity for placing a bet, was responsible for the prevalence of gambling in the country.

But there is no doubt Australia has changed as a result of the report issued by the government's Productivity Commission. When they collaborated last year in setting up the Australian Gaming Council, the gambling industry's major players didn't set up a lobby group.

The pressure on them from politicians and the media was so intense they instead established the council as an umbrella group to determine how to deal with problem gamblers.

The report caused "the industry to take a good long, hard look at itself," says Vicki Flannery, executive director of the industry group. "It was a real wake-up call."

But even as it searches for a way to adapt to what Ms. Flannery sees as changing values, the gambling industry's goals are not altogether altruistic, she concedes.

"We're looking at growing the number of people who gamble responsibly," Flannery says. "And in terms of long-term viability of the industry, problem gamblers don't help. Problem gamblers go broke."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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