Victoria cracks down on slot machines, but supporters fear interest groups may have the winning hand

The centerpiece of the Andrews government’s slot reform announcement is the introduction of a card system for users of poker machines.

Such a pre-commitment system will require slot machine users to sign up for an account linked to a playing card that will record a limit of how much they are willing to lose on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

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Once this limit is reached, the system will not allow any further bets. Since all slots in the state are connected, this limit will apply to all machines and all locations.

Other proposed reforms include:

slowing the rotational speed of new machines to a minimum of three seconds (currently 2.14 seconds)

requiring all venues to close between 4am and 10am

reducing the load limit (the amount that can be credited to a poker machine at any time) to $100, down from the current $1,000

the transfer of key education, research funding and consultancy services from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

The government says it plans to undertake extensive consultation with industry through an implementation working group before the introduction of pre-commitment and reduced load limits. This will be a red flag for many researchers and public health professionals working in gambling harm prevention.

The power of interest groups

The harmful goods industries of tobacco, alcohol, highly processed foods, and gambling are adequately resourced. They have a long history of obstructing or watering down major reforms.

Finger pressing play button on slot machine
The gambling lobby, like the tobacco and alcohol lobbies, has adequate resources to campaign against regulation.

For this reason, the World Health Organization urges its members to protect people from tobacco commercial interests. This includes rejecting partnerships with industry.

The more time they have, the more likely it is that the gambling industry will campaign with its considerable strength against these reforms. This worked to great effect in 2010-11 against proposals by the then Gillard government for such a damage prevention scheme.

Read more: Australia has a strong hand in dealing with gambling harms. Will he go all in or fold?

Misinformation, disinformation, and endlessly challenging scientific evidence are all tobacco industry tactics. They have delayed reform for many years.

Consulting with a harmful goods company about the design of a new system is like consulting the fox about the design of the new chicken coop. It will not produce a solution.

It is also puzzling that the government should consult on how to introduce precommitment. For some years there has been a voluntary system called YourPlay, which provides all the necessary functions. However, because it is voluntary, it has very low uptake and is potentially stigmatizing.

For these reasons, it doesn’t get what it could. But this system could easily be converted into a universal system.

This would provide slot machine users with a set of tools to manage their gambling. This will be especially helpful for those who are worried about spiraling into harmful gambling. It is a definitive preventive intervention.

Measures being introduced locally and abroad

In Tasmania, the Liberal government surprised everyone by announcing last year that a pre-commitment scheme for slot machines would be introduced by 2024.

The system would apply to all cars in the state from December 2024. It would impose upper limits of $100 a day, $500 a month and $5,000 a year. In particular, the announcement came as a surprise to the gambling industry, which campaigned fiercely for the Liberal Party in the 2018 Tasmanian election. The system will be provided on a per-service basis to venue operators.

In NSW, Dominic Perrottet’s former coalition came to the 2022 poll with a detailed proposal to introduce a cashless upfront pledge system for state poker rooms. This has been resisted by the gambling industry, especially the[AustralianHotelsAssociationandthepeakbodyforclubsClubsNSW[AustralianHotelsAssociationandthepeakbodyforclubsClubsNW[AustralianHotelsAssociationedall’entedipuntapericlubClubsNSW[AustralianHotelsAssociationandthepeakbodyforclubsClubsNSW

Former NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet
Former Premier Dominic Perrottet went into NSW elections proposing significant gambling reforms.

The then-opposition ALP backed the industry’s position, promising a cashless pre-commitment process, along with some minor reforms. These ban signage for VIP rooms (code for pokie rooms) and reduce the upload limit on new machines to $500.

The panel of experts to lead the NSW cashless process was announced on 13 July 2023. The process itself has yet to begin.

In 2009, a pre-commitment system was introduced in Norway for all forms of gambling. This was considered quite successful and a similar system was implemented in Sweden.

Closer to home, the report of the House of Representatives committee investigating online gambling in Australia was recently released. He urged the Australian government, among its 31 recommendations, to explore mandatory pre-engagement for online gambling. He also proposed a national regulator to provide uniform national regulatory standards for gambling.

There is no doubt that the momentum for significant gambling reform is building in Australia. The drivers for this are to be found in the growing awareness of the nature and extent of the harm caused by gambling. This includes the costs of money laundering and associated criminal activity which imposes serious harm on the community.

In NSW, the 2022 Crime Commission report on money laundering in clubs and pubs has sounded a loud alarm. But more broadly, a new focus on using a public health lens to view the harms of gambling is an important development. The approach favored by the industry, responsible gambling, blames vulnerable people for the problem.

Read more: 4 overseas gambling reform ideas to save Australia from gambling loss and harm

A public health view means that attention is paid to harmful products and how they are marketed, made accessible and cause harm.

Pass the reforms

If these reforms are fully implemented, they will drastically reduce the damage. What worries the gambling industry is that it will also reduce their profits, probably quite significantly. This is because their best customers are people who experience significant harm from using their products.

Slot machines are responsible for between 51% and 57% of gambling problems in Australia.

For this reason, addressing the damage caused by pokies is an obvious step. Unfortunately, the gambling industry will not accept these changes in silence. Past experience suggests a concerted effort by industry to derail reforms through procrastination and delay.

The Andrews government already has the wherewithal to implement these reforms quickly. If he is sincerely committed to harm reduction, he should do so, without further ado.

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