The Age reports today that, according to data provided by the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation, real per capita poker machine expenditure is down by 25% in Victoria over the past decade.

Poker machines continue to be the overwhelming cause of gambling problems in Australia, so any reduction in the amount spent on them must, surely, be a good thing. Although this reduction is real and significant, the battle against gambling problems and the effects these have on health and well-being is not over.

The reduction in pokie spending appears to be associated with a couple of obvious causes. The first is that while the Victorian adult population increased by about 20% between 2001-02 and 2011-12, the number of poker machines remained relatively stable. Available evidence suggests that although modest reductions in pokie numbers will have little effect on spending, more significant reductions are likely to have an effect. In Victoria, the “density” of pokies (that is, the number of machines per 1000 adults) has declined by over 18% in the past 10 years, and is now about seven per 1000 adults.

The second major cause of reduced spending is that the proportion of the population who actually use poker machines has declined. In 2003, a government-funded prevalence study found that about 33.5% of the Victorian population used pokies; by 2008, another official study concluded that this had dropped to 21.5%.

So fewer pokies, being used by a smaller proportion of the population, suggests that a reduction in  overall and per capita expenditure is likely. However, among that proportion of the population who use pokies, average expenditure has risen — from a little more than $2000 per annum in 2003-04 to over $3000 in 2008-09. Among problem gamblers, it seems likely that average annual expenditure is now in the range of $40,000 per annum, up from about $26,000 in 2003-04 (in real terms, 2008-09 values). Thus, although the overall proportion of the population using pokies has declined, those who use pokies are spending more on average and those with a problem are almost certainly experiencing greater harm.

There is also good evidence to suggest that those who do use pokies continue to develop problems at the same rate as ever. Among that proportion of the population who use pokies at all, the problem gambling rate remains about 3%. Among the 4% of the population who use pokies regularly (once a week or more) the rate of serious gambling problems is about 15%, with another 15% in the next highest risk category. So about a third of regular pokie gamblers experience gambling problems to some degree.

Further, the distribution of pokies is not uniform, despite the government’s imposition of a system to “cap” the number of pokies in local areas. In areas of disadvantage, notably in Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs, and the south-east corridor, the density of poker machines is higher than in the more affluent inner-eastern suburbs, and the average expenditure is also higher. There are 5.5 pokies per 1000 adults in the eastern suburbs, compared to 6.6 across the northern and western suburbs, and average expenditure is $566 per annum. in the east compared to $745 in the north and west.

Perhaps more interesting is that the proportion of the population with gambling problems (problem plus moderate risk gamblers) in the north and western suburbs is about 3.74% of the adult population; in the eastern suburbs it’s 2.06%, based on 2008 prevalence study data.

Gambling is like smoking; we’ve had some success in reducing the number of people who do it. Unfortunately, what we now find is that it is increasingly concentrated among the already disadvantaged, that the rate of harm being done to those who still do it remains constant, and most worryingly, it seems that the amount of harm they experience is increasing.

Unlike the governments of NSW, successive Victorian governments have, to their credit, introduced modest reforms to poker machine gambling. These include reductions in the maximum bet, from $10 per spin to $5; reduction in the load-up (what can be inserted into the machine at any one time) from $9499 to $1000; a ban on ATMs in gambling venues; and some reduction in the number of poker machines allowed in local areas. These have almost certainly contributed to the reduction in gambling expenditure, and the reported prevalence of gambling problems.

In NSW, in contrast, the maximum bet remains at $10, the load-up is still $10,000, there are 19 pokies for every 1000 adults and the average losses are over $1000 per annum. Overall, the amount lost on pokies in NSW is $5 billion per annum, nearly twice that in Victoria. In the inner-western Sydney suburb of Lidcombe, for example, there are more than 18 pokies per 1000 adults, and the average expenditure per adult is about $1700 per annum.

Victoria provides evidence that effective harm minimisation is certainly possible. The challenge is to ensure that disadvantaged communities don’t continue to bear the brunt of pokie problems, and to extend existing and future reforms to other states, particularly gambling’s heartland in NSW.