Poker machines at the Mangere Cosmopolitan Club. (Photo: RNZ Pacific /Indira Stewart)

Preying on the weak: Māori and Pasifika hit hard with problem gambling

Māori and Pasifika are disproportionately represented in problem gambling figures and it’s time targeted efforts were made to reduce harm. Indira Stewart reports for RNZ.

“I can’t stop it myself or control myself. Everytime I go sit there, have a smoke and look at the Sky City – I see the light go ‘bling bling!’,” laughed Julie as she described her struggle with gambling. “And then I feel to myself, oh the Sky City’s calling me ‘Come Julie, come Julie, I will give you some money!”

Despite this, Julie, who no longer gambles, watched many of her friends become homeless as a result of their addiction. On the day of her interview, it was Tuesday – pay day for many in South Auckland, and a peak day for many of the district’s gaming venues. At the Mangere Cosmopolitan Club it was two in the afternoon and most of the pokie machines were in use.

All of the people playing on them were Māori and Pasifika. It’s a scene that Julie, who is Tongan, knew all too well. “I used to tell them off and say ‘Go home! How long you been here? I came here [before], you’re in same clothes!,” recalled Julie. “I see you people with same clothes again! Go and see Mr Water!

Julie first visited the Sky City casino, at the base of the Skytower in downtown Auckland, in 1998. She won $300 on a pokie machine, but that win kicked off a 14-year struggle with gambling. She said she once spent $2000 maxing out her credit card in one week. To win it back, she used up all her week’s wages. Then, she used her husband’s.

Her biggest win was a $20,000 sweepstake.

But at her lowest point, she pawned some her family’s precious cultural heirlooms. She said many others in the Pacific community often did the same. “Losing all my money, then trying to get my money back. And we ended up – all my Island mats and fine mats, tapa cloths, ngatu and that, they all gone to the pawn shop or the Dollar Dealer,” Julie said. “And then we ended up keep losing. And then you lose all your stuff because you can’t afford to buy your stuff back from the pawn shop.”

Problem gambling advocates are calling for electronic gaming machines to be eliminated from vulnerable communities like South Auckland. The latest national gambling study showed gambling continues to impact heavily on Māori and Pacific people. despite an overall decline in the number of people gambling nationwide. According to the study, Māori and Pacific people are much more likely to develop problems than other ethnic groups. They also have high relapse rates.

Pesio Ah Honi and Paula Snowden from the Problem Gambling Foundation said the high density of gaming machines in Māori and Pacific communities is one of the biggest contributors to the problem. “There are five times more machines per person in the high deprivation areas of New Zealand than anywhere else. And that’s where Māori live and it’s also the problem for Pasifika,” said Ms Snowden.

“Vulnerable communities like Pacific, like in South Auckland, are targeted, absolutely,” echoed Ms Ah Honi. “It’s not hard to figure out why high deprivation areas are targeted. Well, because vulnerable communities are just that – we’re vulnerable.”

Both of them want gaming machines gone. “Move [them] out of poor areas and just make it easier for people to make a smart choice and not a silly one,” said Ms Snowden.

Pokie machines at the Mangere Cosmopolitan Club. (Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Indira Stewart)

“When you walk down the main street of Mangere, all you can see is a Cash Converters, a pokie outlet and a discount liquor store. So the choices that poor people have are bad choices,” said Ms Snowden. “But there are no other choices. And if you’ve got twenty dollars worth of money and you’ve got a hundred dollars worth of bills, you are not going to make a smart choice.”

Ms Ah Honi agreed: “Let’s get these machines out of the poorer areas. Out of our communities.

“So we really urge communities to have a say and actually say ‘No we don’t want these in our communities anymore.'”

Auckland University of Technology’s Max Abbott led the national gambling study and said those affected often felt powerless. “If you look at Pacific and Māori populations, there the harm is magnified many-fold. And so, we’re talking about a major contribution to health disparities and inequalities,” Professor Abbott said. “Although the number of pokie machines and venues have dropped markedly since we introduced legislation back in 2004, they remain heavily concentrated in those areas.

“But they’ve virtually disappeared from other parts of the city and it’s very stark – the difference.”

Professor Abbott is also calling for the gaming machines to be banned in South Auckland. “The pubs and clubs have failed to demonstrate a duty of care that they’re required to under law,” said Professor Abbott.

“I don’t think they’re capable of it with the turnover of staff and various other factors. I’ve come to the conclusion that frankly we should be getting to the point where we’re not only looking to reduce these machines in these communities, we actually completely eliminate them.”

Mr Abbott adds that while Pacific communities are very religious, churches are often a double-edged sword when it comes to the gambling problem. “Although they may be anti- they often use gambling as a way of raising revenue and housie is one form of gambling that’s quite strongly the problem. Particularly with Pacific and Māori people,” he said.

Ms Ah Honi agreed and said churches have often helped normalise the culture of gambling among Pacific people. “We have housie in our churches and bingos and we’ve used gambling activities to raise funds for so many years that that transition over from a harmless, fundraising, social activity in our church to a more dangerous form of continuous play – it’s actually a really easy transition for our communities,” she said.

At the Mangere Cosmopolitan Club a bell rings by the bar every fifteen minutes, reminding staff to check the gaming room. Staff there are trained to monitor the room and to ensure people are gambling responsibly and safely. If they’re concerned, they alert the club’s manager, Mike Cassidy.

“I can actually give them an exclusion order and tell them, you’re gone. You’re out of my gaming,” said Mr Cassidy, who had issued an order to a patron just last week. He doesn’t believe the machines should be banned and explained that the profits funded many community initiatives. “Can I walk out of here at the end of the night feeling that ‘Hey we’ve done the best we can to look after something which can go wrong for some people but on the other hand, is a huge community asset?,” he said.

“Our gaming money – after all the tax and everything we pay on it – we’re left with roughly 62 percent that comes from all of that. That does become community money.”

But Ms Snowden said that’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. “The government needs to look seriously at this whole idea of funding community projects from gambling losses. Because for the most part, people are spending money they don’t have,” she said

“And they’re wanting to win that prize to alleviate their poverty.”

Originally published by RNZ.


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