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Problem Gambling

Many people view gambling as a form of entertainment, but it can result in significant harm for the gambler and those close to them.
Posted October 30, 2008

Gambling: It's Our Problem, New Zealand

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Problem Gambling in New Zealand (PDF, 204KB)

When gambling becomes a problem

Many people view gambling as a form of entertainment, but it can result in significant harm for the gambler and those close to them. Gambling becomes a problem when it disrupts and damages someone’s life, impacting friendships, family relationships, work life and the community they live in.

Countries around the world are becoming concerned about the effects of gambling on people’s household expenditure and of associated gambling-related harm such as increased crime and health problems, family break-up, addiction problems and increased debt.

In New Zealand, the Gambling Act 2003 recognises that gambling is a significant public health issue. The Act lists the preventing and minimising of harm caused by gambling as one of its purposes.

A growing industry

The Gambling Act 2003 defines gambling as: ‘paying or staking consideration, directly or indirectly, on the outcome of something, seeking to win money when the outcome depends wholly or partly on chance’.

Gambling is a growing industry in New Zealand with more and more gambling opportunities available in our communities since the 1990s: casinos, electronic gaming machines (pokies) in pubs and clubs, TAB outlets offering sports betting, new lottery products (Keno and Powerball), and the development of online gambling, including NZ Lotteries’ online Lotto and TAB online access. This growth has been followed by a parallel increase in the number of people seeking help for problem gambling.

In New Zealand gambling is an emerging public health issue with social, health and economic implications.

Despite some recent slowing in gambling growth with the introduction of the Gambling Act 2003, local government gaming policies and a ban on smoking inside gambling venues, gambling revenues continue to grow. According to the Department of Internal Affairs, gambling expenditure increased in the 2006/07 year for the first time in three years (by 2.2%, from $1.977 billion to $2.020 billion). This was due to increased spending on noncasino gaming machines, racing and sports betting, and Lotteries Commission products.

There are many forms of gambling, but some present more hazards than others, particularly the continuous-play forms such as electronic gaming machines. The primary gambling mode for those seeking help in 2006 was non-casino pokies in pubs and clubs, followed by casino pokies, casino tables, track betting, and then sport betting and Lotto/scratch cards/Keno.

Pokies continue to be the most harmful form of gambling in New Zealand with a greater concentration of pokies in poorer communities.

Gambling's harmful effects

Gambling harm, or problem gambling, is defined by the Gambling Act 2003 as ‘harm or distress of any kind arising from, or caused or exacerbated by, a person’s gambling, and includes personal, social or economic harm suffered by the person, their spouse, partner, family, whanau and wider community, or in their workplace or society at large’. Problem gambling affects people’s finances, health, relationships, children, employment and communities.

The poorest pay the highest price

As gambling revenues rise, those living in highdeprivation communities are at the greatest risk of social harm, particularly Maori and Pacific people who have high rates of problem gambling.

A Ministry of Health study entitled ‘Problem Gambling Geography of New Zealand 2005’, shows that gambling venues are more likely to be located in more socioeconomically deprived areas with 53% of all non-casino gambling machines located in deciles 8–10 in both March 2003 and June 2005.

The study notes that if noncasino gambling machines were distributed evenly with population throughout New Zealand only 30% would be in deciles 8–10. Over five times as many non-casino gambling machines are in the two most deprived deciles (deciles 9 and 10) than in the two least deprived deciles (deciles 1 and 2). This distribution has not changed considerably since 2003.

TABs are also more likely to be in areas of higher deprivation with about half of all TABs in the three most deprived deciles (deciles 8–10). The distribution of TABs, in relation to socio-economic deprivation, is very similar to that of non-casino gaming machines, according to the Ministry of Health study.

The 2002/03 New Zealand Health Survey shows that a higher proportion of those living in more deprived areas experience gambling problems. Socioeconomic deprivation and ethnicity are also closely linked with Maori and Pacific peoples more likely to live in more deprived areas. This survey identified that gambling problems were experienced by 3.3% of Maori and 3.8% of Pacific peoples compared with 0.8% for Europeans/others.

Those affected by problem gambling typically struggle to afford healthy food, heating, accommodation, transport and health care. Salvation Army Food Bank research in 2004 found that approximately 12-14% of people accessing Salvation Army social services were identified as problem gamblers and 32% had been affected by another person’s gambling. Many of these clients (approximately three-quarters) had children in their household and 78% were either Maori or Pacific.

But the impact on the community reaches further than just individual gamblers and their families. Problem gambling imposes costs on the local community through social, health and justice services, as well as through increased crime and productivity losses to businesses. Also, money spent on gambling is taken away from local businesses and activities.

Beware the pokie machine!

Pokie machines have moved from a one-coin game with handles and reels to machines with alluring flashing lights and sounds, ready to receive banknotes. These machines are designed to draw people to them, keep them playing and feed their hope for the ‘big win’—whether they can afford to stay at the machine or not.

The truth is: Pokie machines were not created to help players make money. Nor does how often they are played influence when and how much money players could win.

The Department of Internal Affairs says that it doesn’t matter if:

  • You play a machine directly after someone else had a big win
  • You play a machine that has not had a big payout for a long time
  • You play certain days in the week
  • You play certain times during the day or night
  • You press buttons a certain way

It is the machine that decides if you win or lose—and the odds are that you will lose.

It's our problem, New Zealand!

Though problem gambling increases and continues to affect thousands of New Zealanders every day, you can ensure that gambling does not become a problem for those around you.

To prevent gambling from controlling your community:

  • Inform the community of various helping services
  • Improve community awareness and education
  • Increase the knowledge and skills of health workers and community agencies
  • Volunteer at local gambling community action groups
  • Prepare submissions for your local council gaming policy review
  • Use resources from Gambling Watch (
  • Stay informed and raise the voice of consumers
  • Look for alternative methods of funding your community organisation

Gambling and God

The 'Evil' of Gambling vs the Providence of God

Historically, parts of the Protestant church—including The Salvation Army—have warned against the ‘evil’ of gambling, often associated with excessive use of alcohol and social harm in lower-income families where the breadwinner gambled household funds. This was not based on any biblical injunction specific to gambling, but was to promote temperance and upright citizenship, urging people to avoid the temptation of sins like greed, envy, deceit and idolatry.

Community Effects and Christian Involvement

Those who are church members (senior soldiers) in The Salvation Army promise to have nothing to do with the ‘social evil’ of gambling ‘in whatever form it appears’. This is partly because gambling operates on an un-Christian basis of belief in luck (the Christian Church encourages reliance on the providence of God), and also because The Salvation Army knows that the harm caused by problem gambling goes much wider than an individual or even their families.

Gambling plays on people’s desires for instant gratification and to become ‘winners’. But it is in direct conflict with community responsibility towards the poor, which is echoed many times in the Bible and is of essential interest to the Christian Church: ‘He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God’ (Proverbs 14:31); ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, to preach good news to the poor.’ (Luke 4:18)

Church groups were among those who opposed the introduction of Casino licensing to New Zealand. Association with organised crime one of the main fears, perhaps above thoughts of dependency of individuals or even communities on gambling. But it soon emerged that the growing number of non-casino gambling machines was a more immediate concern, due to both the number of venues available and the number of machines in those venues.

Salvation Army Mission

In The Salvation Army—with our stated three-fold mission of caring for people, transforming lives and reforming society by challenging injustice and evil—we have the opportunity and responsibility to act out our faith individually and as members of communities.

The frontline work of our Oasis Centres for Problem Gambling, and crisis response of our Community Ministries Centres, is caring for those most immediately affected by gambling, some of whom are desperate—even suicidal.

Transformation of lives begins with education and support and continues with the healing that comes through faith as people move towards God.

Reforming society is the aim of our Oasis Centres when making submissions to local bodies and Government for legislative change to control gaming outlets in opposition to liberalisation of gaming machine licensing. We also participate in ‘Host Responsibility’ education of local body representatives and gaming providers.

The Salvation Army’s decision to refuse funds from gaming trusts is in line with our other ‘reforming society’ activities and is a way to stand in solidarity with those affected by problem gambling: ‘Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (James 2:5)

Salvationists strive for a faith that is ‘accompanied by action’ and are committed to living out such faith in their attitude and response to problem gambling in New Zealand: ‘What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ (James 2:14-17)

Bible quotations from the New International Version

Treatment for Problem Gambling

If you are concerned that gambling is having a negative impact over your or someone else’s life, then please read about the services offered by our Addiction Services.