Almost from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand has implemented some of the strictest lockdown rules for its citizens – levels of regional impact, alerts and restrictions that have closed much of the economy for extended periods of time.
One of the unexpected outcomes of this level of caution has been the increase in pokies play among NZ gamers. According to the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, in 2020 (mostly from October – December), the spend on pokies machines was equivalent to $204 for every adult.
New Zealand’s brick-and-mortar casinos have been closed for much of the pandemic in order to minimize the risk of infection but Kiwis continue to play pokies at the country’s kiosks and online casinos at a rate that increases from month to month. Quarter 4 2020 was the largest quarterly spend on pokies that the country has seen since 2007 -- $252 million.
Chris Thornborough, gaming director of the Internal Affairs department and supervisor of Kiwi casinos commented, "We've been tracking the pokie money through Covid, and we knew there was going to be an impact but we were surprised by the bounce-back once the pokie restrictions were eased. We didn't anticipate that there'd be quite as vigourous a bounce back as there was over the December quarter."
Gaming in New Zealand During COVID Pandemic
NZ casinos, pubs and clubs closed down in March 2020, resulting in an overall $128 million drop in the country’s annual gambling profits. Online gambling, however, increased significantly. The country’s Lotto saw a 13% increase to $631 million and online casinos reported a similar upswing. According to Gaming Machine Association chairperson Peter Dengate Thrush said that kind of bounce back was part of a wider trend in New Zealand's economy.
"New Zealand in general has not suffered as much from the Covid experience as we might've done, we're seeing rebounds across the whole of the economy” said Thrush to RNZ. “You have a look at the GDP figures for the last year - I was having a look earlier - I think overall we're seeing a rebound in that quarter of 14 percent in goods in that final quarter…..The whole of the economy has not done as badly under a pandemic as we might've done."
Thrush sees the increase in gambling as a boost for the country. "We put out, you know, $300 million worth of grants into the local community, keeping sport and culture and art activities going all over the country so it's an enormous endeavour and it's, you know, it's an enormous advantage to New Zealand." New Zealand law states that 40% of gaming machine profits must be returned to the community in the form of grants.
Pub Charity chief executive Martin Cheer told RNZ that the increase was not unexpected. "A significant number that are locked in, in New Zealand now, the population continues to grow with people coming back and people just have nowhere to spent their money and so it is going to show up in retail spending and discretionary spending in which gaming machines are just a part of that."
The statistics don’t surprise anti-gambling activists. Paula Snowden of the Problem Gambling Foundation said that the boredom and stresses of the pandemic shutdowns has fueled the upturn in pokie gambling. What’s even more disturbing, said Snowden, is that half of the kiosks with poker machines are located in poor communities. "People losing the money are poor people in poor communities and what we say is we've got to stop focusing on the 40 percent that becomes charity and think about the 60 percent of the losses because they walk out of poor communities."
The issue is of particular concern to Pasifika communities where many people are turning to online casinos. The Mapu Maia problem gambling support service, which provides culturally appropriate services to those affected by addictive gambling behaviors, reports that more people are gambling online over lockdown. Director Pesio Ah-Honi said that since August, more Pacific people have turned to mobile gambling to satisfy their gambling habits, particularly among men aged 20 to 30.
"We started hearing they were gambling online.” she said. “Some of them were buying Lotto more online and playing the Lotto scratchies online, and then others playing casino type slot games online from overseas companies, and slowly we have seen an increase of that."
Pesio Ah-Honi wants the government to join the support organizations in focusing on the long term impacts.
"Anecdotally we are seeing it in the frontline as lockdowns continue and as people are more and more isolated, we are going to see the online gambling spending increase, we are going to see online gambling harm increase, and we are going to see more and more fallout from it in terms of an increase in mental health, social impacts of jobs, families, relationships, domestic violence.”
Dr Edmond Fehoko, author of From games to gambling: An exploratory study of Tongan-born and New Zealand-born male perceptions and experiences of gambling and problem gambling in New Zealand, says that Pasifika and Māori are at greater risk than any other group in Aotearoa."Covid-19 has pretty much exacerbated these digital worlds and online opportunities for Pacific peoples,” he said, “ and we can't underestimate the power of online within Pacific communities and the fact that gambling has already hit the Pacific community, like no other." Dr Fehoko notes that online accessibility to gambling is fueling the fire.
"If you watch Lotto for example and they read out the winners, where are the majority of winners coming from, 'My Lotto app' and the exposure for that already creates interesting excitement for Pacific people to download the app and put money into it, and that's how they carry on their gambling behaviours in a Covid-19 world." "So, if they are doing that for Lotto, imagine what they are doing for TAB for casino games that are not even controlled here in New Zealand."
Mapu Maia is calling for stronger consumer protection, especially re: online gambling which is not currently regulated in New Zealand. The government has been promising to review the situation for years but, says Mapu Maia director Pesio Ah-Honi, the time to act is now.
Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio agrees. "We are going to have to figure out as a society, how do we live with gambling out and about in our surroundings and how do we protect the most vulnerable.”