Pokie room attendants slam rules that stop them from interrupting problem gamblers
September 12, 2020 04:49:01
When Rachel* started working as a poker machine room attendant, she didn’t realise that mopping up urine would be part of her job.
- Pokie room attendants say they are not allowed to intervene when they see problem gambling
- Three current and former staff said they’ve seen patrons wet themselves or use adult nappies at pokies
- The NSW Minister is considering proposals to allow pokies staff to intervene with problem gamblers
“There’s one woman who comes into the club and sits on one machine all day. She will have a couple of drinks and she won’t give up the machine,” she said.
“I’ve seen her wee herself all over the chair instead of giving up that machine and going to the toilet.”
When it happens, the twenty-something worker puts on some gloves, grabs some wipes and a mop and bucket and gets to work.
One thing she doesn’t do is ask the patron to leave, or whether she might want to seek help.
“No one at work will ever approach anyone about problem gambling. We are told not to,” Rachel said.
“If someone who was just drinking pissed themselves it would be different. They would be asked to leave. Because they are gambling, well, we are told to keep them happy, to do anything we can to make them stay.”
Other poker machine players in the western Sydney club Rachel works in take extreme measures so they can sit on their preferred poker machine all day.
“I would have seen used adult diapers left in the bathroom on seven or eight different occasions,” Rachel said.
ABC Investigations spoke to three current or former poker machine attendants who have seen people wet themselves or wear adult nappies so they can keep playing the pokies non-stop.
All wondered why in NSW the Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) training tells them to intervene if someone has consumed too much, but the Responsible Conduct of Gambling (RCG) stipulates they should not approach patrons they suspect may have a problem with gambling.
“I find it troubling how we are strictly prohibited from commenting on a problem gambler,” another Sydney poker machine attendant told the ABC.
“Legally we must stop an intoxicated person from drinking, however, we must turn a blind eye to blatant problem gamblers spending thousands each day on the pokies.”
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‘They protect gaming a lot more’
Lincoln Poole, who runs the gambling help team at Parramatta Mission, thinks he knows why NSW limits pokie intervention.
“Gambling makes more money for clubs than alcohol does. The lobby groups, the AHA and ClubsNSW, are fairly well-funded, and a lot of that comes through their members, through gaming. So they protect gaming a lot more.”
Mr Poole is an industry veteran who has seen the debates around gambling harm from both sides.
He’s been a gambling counsellor, worked in registered clubs, done time as the problem gambling policy officer at Tabcorp and wrote the RCG training course in NSW when it was last reviewed in 2011.
He said when he was reviewing the RCG course he conducted focus groups that underlined the importance of staff intervening with problem gamblers.
“Gamblers were saying that if somebody had come up to them in the venue and done some type of intervention and said, ‘look are you okay? You’ve been here for a few hours’, that might have been a circuit breaker for them.”
Mr Poole said he took those insights from the focus group to the Industry Consultative Committee advising him, and suggested they find a way to make direct interventions with problem gamblers part of the RCG.
He said industry representatives on the committee shut him down.
“They said ‘there’s no way you should be putting that in there, that a staff member should intervene because it’s not covered by the legislation (the Gaming Machines Act which covers RCG training)’. I said, ‘well maybe we could make a recommendation about that?’ They said, ‘no, that’s something different. That’s nothing to do with what we’re doing here.'”
Neither ClubsNSW nor the AHA would respond to Mr Poole’s comments about what occurred at those meetings.
In a statement, ClubsNSW insisted it had been proactive about supporting a more interventionist approach to RCG.
“Since November 2017, [ClubsNSW] has been working with the University of Sydney’s Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic to develop an appropriate advanced training program for staff,” a spokesperson said.
“Under this program, a responsible gambling ambassador would be trained to identify problematic behaviour and approach players in a friendly, non-judgmental way to see if assistance might be welcomed.”
Responsible gambling policy in NSW operates on what is described as an “informed choice” model.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
Stickers and signage provide warnings about the risks of gambling in the hope the patron will make rational decisions, while restrictions are placed on promotions, advertising and inducements like free alcohol.
If a poker machine player has a gambling problem, they have to make the decision to self-exclude and hope the venue enforces that ban.
The responsibility for problem gambling rests predominantly with the gambler, not the venue.
The industry continually resists calls to slow down the machines or to introduce maximum bets per spin.
“The industry says poker machines are no more than a form of entertainment, and it actually says that in the brochures prescribed by the legislation too,” Mr Poole said.
“You tell me any form of entertainment that can take $1,200 off you in one hour.
“Lower socio-economic areas have higher densities of poker machines. So, most of these people don’t even have $1,200 spare a fortnight yet they can go to a poker machine and load that into a machine in less than an hour.”
The man who introduced the first gambling harm minimisation laws in Australia in 1999, former NSW Gaming Minister Richard Face, said the “informed choice” approach was a product of its time.
“We were pioneers in a way, in that we had no other local yardstick. I think we went as far as we could at the time and the other states were reluctant to move,” he said.
He said it’s time to rethink the way poker machines are regulated.
“The legislation needs to be looked at. I think it’s time to put more on the providers, on the pubs and clubs to take more responsibility in identifying people with problems.”
Comparing gambling and alcohol service rules
|Responsible Conduct of Gambling (RCG)||Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA)|
|Intervention||There is no legal requirement in NSW for staff to intervene if a patron is showing signs of problem gambling distress. They can stay in the venue and keep playing the machine until closing.||With alcohol, staff must refuse service to a patron if there are reasonable grounds to believe they are intoxicated. The patron must be asked to leave the premises. Staff and venues can be fined and face licence restrictions for failing to comply with these laws.|
The RCG course lists the economic and social benefits of gambling:
“The gambling industry provides a range of benefits to the community including employing tens of thousands of people Australia wide and generating several billion dollars in taxes from venues.”
In the RSA course it does not quantify the economic benefits of alcohol, just the costs:
“Alcohol misuse and abuse also increases the costs incurred by the health system, police, the justice system, road authorities and reduced productivity. In 2010, the total cost of alcohol-related issues to Australia was estimated to be $14.35 billion.”
|Fines||There are no fines for allowing a patron who is showing signs of problem gambling distress to keep gambling.||Individuals can be fined up to $11,000 and corporations up to $27,000 for serving an intoxicated patron.|
|Incident logs||Gambling incident logs are voluntary.||Violence or anti-social behaviour incident logs are compulsory in high risks pubs or any establishment with a liquor licence after midnight.|
Minister considering RCG changes
The man who has an opportunity to change those laws is Victor Dominello, the NSW Minister responsible for gambling policy.
Since February, he has had access to the Responsible Conduct of Gambling Study — a 176-page report written by expert researchers from CQ University.
The report found that, “the current approach to RCG is having little positive impact on harm prevention or reduction,” and that “substantial changes to RCG practices and training in NSW are needed to meaningfully minimise gambling harm”.
The researchers put the case that, “to improve gambling harm minimisation, mandatory intervention should be required when patrons display problem gambling behaviours.”
Mr Dominello is thought to be seriously considering making these kinds of changes.
He was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman for the Office of Responsible Gambling said: “The Government is committed to bolstering harm minimisation measures relating to use of gaming machines across venues in NSW.”
“Enhanced responsible conduct of gambling training for staff is one of the measures currently being considered.”
There is increasing pressure on the NSW government to do more around poker machine harms following the death by suicide of Gary Van Duinen after a 13-hour pokie binge at Dee Why RSL.
The NSW regulator ordered the club to pay $200,000 in costs and fines for using “high roller” incentives to illegally entice the 45-year-old to gamble.
There are strong financial incentives for the industry to keep the current model in place and keep problem gamblers in front of machines for long periods of time.
The 2019 NSW Gambling Survey found that problem gamblers accounted for 37 per cent of gambling expenditure. If you add low and moderate-risk gamblers to that figure it reaches 71 per cent.
The industry is likely to resist some of the report’s other suggestions like trialling a “reduction of maximum bet size to $1, and the abolition of jackpots, bonus features and congratulatory sounds on losses disguised as wins.”
But would it support any move to bring in legislation that would force staff and venues to intervene when patrons display problem gambling behaviours?
That’s not a question ClubsNSW would provide a direct answer to. In a statement a spokesperson said:
“According to research published this year by the NSW Office of Responsible Gambling, most clubs across NSW already employ dedicated responsible gambling staff or have procedures for monitoring patron behaviour and intervening where appropriate.”
As Rachel prepared to do another shift in the poker machine room of her local club, she said she hoped the law changed to enable people like her to intervene with problem gamblers.
“You get people who complain to you about all the money they have lost but you can’t do anything about it,” she said.
“They come in and chase their losses but nothing changes.
“They continue to lose all the money they’ve got and we can do nothing to stop them unless they ask for help. 100 per cent — I hope that changes.”
* Name has been changed
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