Pokie venues fail secret test

More than half of venues failed to help actors portraying problem gambling symptoms. Photo: Getty

An undercover audit by the Department of Internal Affairs has found worrying problems remain in New Zealand’s gambling dens. What is being done to reduce the harm?

The term “mystery shopper” may sound innocuous, but the results of an investigation into the country’s gambling venues is not pretty reading.

More than half of “class 4” pokie bars failed to meet problem gambling expectations in an undercover operation by the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA).

Another third partially met expectations, while not a single club out of 22 visited fully met expectations.

In the test, a group of researchers trained in mimicking problem gambling behaviour were sent to 120 pokie bars and clubs, plus all six casinos, to see how well staff reacted.

Feigned problem gambling symptoms included a 12-hour stretch of play (with specified breaks of no more than 30 minutes) to see if staff became concerned.

Other examples were signs of agitation and concerns expressed by a fake family member.

Some actors tested staff on Eftpos declines, playing for 45 minutes then withdrawing $20 on four separate occasions from an ATM. Following another hour of play they approached staff and tried to withdraw $120. When this was declined, they would try to withdraw $80, then $40, to see if staff gave them advice.

Under guidelines, staff should make a general comment about help available, provide a help leaflet and record the incident in a log book. Almost all class 4 venues failed this test.

All six New Zealand casinos were visited, and performed better than their smaller counterparts.

Significant improvements were made from the 2014 survey, with SkyCity’s venues performing particularly well. More than half of mystery shoppers were provided with help-seeking information by staff, compared with only seven percent in the earlier audit.

Christchurch and Dunedin casinos also made progress, but did not perform as well as SkyCity.

Saddening, but unsurprising

More money is spent on pokie machines than any other form of gambling in New Zealand.

In the 2015/16 financial year $843 million was spent on gaming machines outside of casinos – the highest amount since 2011/12.

During the same period, $342m was spent at the TAB, $437m on lotto and scratchies, while $586m was flitted away at casinos.

The total amount spent on gambling in 2015/16 rose 5.6 percent compared to the previous year.

With the DIA’s mystery shopper results, new questions have been raised about whether enough is being done to monitor gaming venues.

Gambling compliance director Gareth Bostock said while there had been some pleasing improvements since the first exercise it was clear there was plenty more improvement needed.

The low number of venues meeting all expectations was unsurprising as that was “like getting 100 percent in an exam”, but many were far from perfect.

In the 2016/17 financial year, 12 infringement notices and 158 warning letters were sent out for breaches of the Gambling Act, while two licences were suspended.

Only two of those infringement notices were related to harm minimisation, raising the question about whether enough attention was being paid to the issue.

Bostock said encouraging a culture of care, rather than enforcement, was seen as a better option, but operators who showed no willingness to improve would be targeted.

The results from the exercise, which would now continue on a rolling basis, would be used by the DIA to target its regulatory and education work, he said.

For Problem Gambling Foundation chief executive Paula Snowden, the results were saddening but unsurprising.

She praised the mystery shopper exercise as a great way to flush out the problem, with the results showing poor results in rural areas and those high on the deprivation index.

“This is not Parnell; this is South Auckland, this is Westport.”

She believed there needed to be greater transparency, a “name and shame” initiative so the community knew what venues were not complying, while the trusts that provided the machines needed to take more responsibility.

“If a venue can’t be sustainable without exploiting the poor then we don’t need it in New Zealand.”

Little response from gaming industry

New Zealand’s three biggest gaming trusts had little to say on the matter.

New Zealand Community Trust communications manager Tanya Piejus declined an interview request, while Pub Charity chief executive Martin Cheer said he could not talk to media without board approval.

In a written statement, Lion Foundation chief executive Murray Reade said he broadly agreed with the intent of the exercise but said the execution of the exercise by DIA needed to be improved to make it fair and relevant. He did not elaborate on what his concerns were.

Bruce Robertson, chair of the Class 4 Gaming Party that represents the majority of the sector, said the results were “pretty good” and there had been a significant improvement.

The bar had been set very high by the DIA for their exercise, which was more robust than the minimum requirements set out in the act, Robertson said.

He acknowledged there was significant work still to be done, particularly around education and host responsibility.

“We need to do better, we will do better, it takes time to shift that culture.”