In the early 1990’s Christopher Reynolds, a milk man, had a gambling problem. Almost every work day between his morning and afternoon milk runs, he would have lunch at the Katoomba RSL and stay for a couple hours to play the pokies, losing thousands of dollars.
Both Reynolds and his father pleaded with the manager of the club to stop cashing cheques when he was on one of his binges, but for the next 18 months, Reynolds kept attending the club, and they kept cashing his cheques so he could continue gambling.
Reynolds took the unusual step of suing the club and the case made its way to the NSW court of appeal. While the court accepted what had happened, it found that the Katoomba RSL had done nothing wrong: it had no duty of care to prevent Mr Reynolds from gambling.
The court held that sole responsibility for controlling a gambling addiction lies with the addict. Of course, there are many good reasons for courts to start from such a presumption. But, when it comes to gambling addiction, it is time to turn attention to the responsibility of the pokies industry.
The damage poker machines cause
We know Australians lose around $11 billion a year on the pokies and claim victims well beyond the gambling addicts themselves. Children are neglected, marriages are strained, families are torn apart and mental health is compromised, too often with fatal consequences. Whatever the responsibility of addicts, we know their addiction leaves a trail of damage among people who had no chance of protecting themselves. We know that most of these effects are being felt in some of Australia’s poorest postcodes, compounding disadvantage and inequality.
We also know that, when it comes to gambling addiction, our normal understanding of personal responsibility is not cut and dry. Pre-existing mental health issues predispose some people to gambling addiction, as does poverty, under-employment and a history of personal trauma.
Neuroscience also suggests that a gambling addict’s response to the pokies is akin to cocaine addict’s response to cocaine. Psychiatrists now recognise “Gambling Disorder” as a mental health diagnosis with symptoms characteristic of drug addiction. Describing an addict taking a hit as a “deliberate and voluntary act” is, at best, an oversimplification.
The responsibilities of venues
Furthermore, regarding where responsibility lies, we know that venues offer inducements to stay at the machines for longer: free drinks and snacks, “loyalty” points or, as in Reynolds’ case, a steady supply of cash. We know that so-called “self-exclusion” agreements are not enforced and that machine makers employ expert mathematicians and psychologists who contribute to the design of machines that keep people pressing the button. We know that they use tricks that feed addiction, like faking “near misses” and disguising losses as wins.
So relying on the personal responsibility of gambling addicts to “solve” the problem is a dead end. But to date that is as far as courts, parliaments and the gambling industry have been prepared to go. Responsibility has to be considered in both directions – from the addict and from the pusher.
The newly formed alliance for gambling reform has been established to hold the pokies industry responsible for the role it plays. Maurice Blackburn is working with the alliance to develop public interest test cases to use the law as it stands to hold the industry to account, focussing in particular on design elements that encourage addiction. The first of those test cases involves Shonica Guy.
PODCAST: Shonica Guy – Taking on the pokies
Shonica Guy was introduced to poker machines at the age of 17 when her boyfriend asked her if she wanted to play. Before long, she was the one insisting they go to the pokies where they would easily pour all the money they had into the machines after they had paid the bills. Years later, she found herself taking money that had been allocated for bills so she could go and play the pokies, thinking to herself, ‘oh, I’ll pay that one next fortnight’.
Then one day she realised she had nothing left and knew she had to stop. Around the same time as she started attending Pokies Anonymous, Shonica began researching poker machines on the internet and learned how they were designed – specifically in a way to get people addicted to them.
Listen to the podcast below, or subscribe on iTunes.
Pokies addiction is one of Australia’s most significant moral, social and economic problems. Lawyers, health care professionals, politicians and, ultimately, the pokies industry itself need to take responsibility for solving this slow burning national crisis.