Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Why Are Pokies Addictive?

You can attend a free seminar being given by Professor Harrigan at Monash University. All are welcome. Simply RSVP by email to Charles.Livingstone@med.monash.edu.au. Click on the graphic below for further information.Click here for more information about Professor Harrigan's work.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Questions Tony Robinson Didn't Want Asked

Last week, Victorian Minister for Gaming, Tony Robinson, launched the Statewide Problem Gambling & Mental Health program at the Alfred Hospital. I had agreed to attend and wanted to ask the Minister some questions. Both as a matter of courtesy and with the goal of a better response, I emailed a number of questions to the Minister's office. The Department of Justice intervened and requested that I not publicly ask those questions. Here are the questions I proposed to ask:
Dear Minister,

I will be attending the launch of Statewide Problem Gambling & Mental Health Program as the representative of the Local Government Working Group on Gambling of the Victorian Local Government Association. In that capacity, I will be listening and reporting back to the working group during their scheduled meeting on 21 April 2010.

While my personal views do not represent the position of the working group, I do intend to raise some questions with you at the launch with the goal of better informing the group with respect to matters relating to the reduction of harm caused by Victorian pokies. The object of this email is to provide you with notice of the matters I intend to raise.

1.
This programme is praiseworthy as any funds set aside to remedy the effects of pokie gambling is good. However, it's existence runs contrary to the considered research and views gathered over 10 years by the Productivity Commission as set out in their draft report. Please refer to chapter 3 in particular. While it is recognised that this program will better integrate help services with the rest of the health system, and that's a good thing, it fails to address key findings:
"Help services relate to people who have already developed major problems and, as such, are not a substitute for ... preventative measures"
The Commission urges a public health framework as providing
"the best basis for coherent gambling policies, emphasising the importance of policies that address the gambling environment as well as gambler's behaviours. The framework for gambling policy needs to recognise that it goes beyond ameliorating the harms to people suffering sever harm from their gambling."
What are you and the government going to do to put in place effective harm minimisation measures? Objective observations show failures in current measures. Going from the easy to remedy failures to the more substantive,
  • warning signs without even a link, phone number or takeaway card are allowed to be placed upon pokies where they are least visible. There is no venue requirement place cards that allow gamblers to discretely pickup a card that may be the first step on a pathway to prevention
  • advertising messages to gamble responsibly imply that the venues themselves bear no responsibility for the harmful adult entertainment they offer; that it's all in the hands of the individual
  • self exclusion is promoted in a way that is practically invisible, by small cards placed by a cash register or sometimes not provided at all... how can gamblers participate in a program that they are unaware of?
  • pre-commitment to be implemented in years from now is ill defined lacking even a requirement of compulsory gambler participation or an opt out structure. The lack of such requirements makes it effectively useless. That's not only my conclusion but also the conclusion of the Productivity Commission.
Your government did not wait for any federal finding to reduce the maximum pokie bet from $10 to $5 yet, even allowing a slower gambling rate and decreasing the required return to the pokie operator by 20% (RTP from 87¢ to 90¢), a Victorian gambler can still lose $6,000 per hour on a Victorian pokie. That's not harm minimisation. Pokie gambling at a potential loss rate of $6,000 per hour is not recreational.

While there are substantive faults in the methodology and findings of recent state government surveys, they all surveyed huge samples and the fact is that Victoria had the worst problem gambling rates of any state.

Is your government going to put in place the key recommendation of the $1 per button push, reducing volatility to a $120 per hour loss limit, and a $20 cash acceptor maximum? I am reliably told that this can be implemented immediately, by regulation. If yes, when can we look forward to this progressive and admirable measure? I am also informed that it requires only a software change.

2.
The pokie entitlement auctions that commenced 20 April have been criticised in the Herald Sun for their secrecy. You have been properly praised for making public the losses incurred at each pokie venue at the urging of VLGA and we hope that this information will continue to be released as it helps in planning services and councils making decisions relevant to the VCGR process. The reason stated for the secrecy is to ensure there is no collusion. While such goal is admirable, bearing in mind that this auction is not for a home or a piece of art,
  • all bidders should be known,
  • the entitlements already allocated to clubs disclosed,
  • the clubs to whom they have been allocated and
  • the amount bid by those clubs
Secrecy does not prevent collusion. Having all the information out there levels the field.

3.
What is the progress on the controversy surrounding management agreements that, it has been reported, effectively bestow control to terminate and appoint a club venue licensee. This is the case of the Woolworths' joint venture sacking the Footscray and Richmond footy clubs and favouring Carlton. You may recall that I wrote to you about these agreements that are considered and approved in secret. Please bear in mind that these agreements are bestowing rights over publicly granted pokie licenses. You may also recall that parts of my submission to the Gambling Review were blacked out from public viewing. These blacked out paragraphs related to these agreements. There is now a report of a basketball club holding a pokie club license whose registered office is the same as the Woolworths joint venture that ceased to play basketball years ago. If continued, such agreements will impact upon effective control of pokie entitlements (a grant of license by the Victorian community) for both clubs and pubs.
  • Will you place these management and lease agreements on the public record so the public can see who is truly controlling Victoria's pokie licenses?
  • Will you bar the Woolworths joint venture from participating in the pokie entitlement auction until the controversy involving the North Melbourne Basketball Club is publicly resolved?
  • Will you remove the pokie tax break for "clubs" like the footy organisations so that they are no longer incentivised to open up more and more pokie venues that are no more than gambling venues with a state tax break?
Your assistance in answering and encouraging public discussion of these matters will be appreciated.
This was the same launch where Alfred Hospital staff revealed that 1 in 5 of their suicidal patients was a problem gambler. I was told that my questions would be answered.

I have received no answer, not even an acknowledgement.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Responding to ALH

Here is the text of the letter I delivered to the offices of the Woolworths / Mathieson joint venture just before the close of business yesterday:

Mr. Ross Blair-Holt
Director
ALH Group

Dear Ross,

I refer to your letter of 19 April 2010 and the attachment setting out the goods and services associated with the registered trademark.

It is certainly not my intention to inappropriately use the ALH Group trademark.

Upon review of the blog.PokieAct.org website, it would seem that the only use of the trademark was on the blog titled “Who runs The Rex” published on 12 January 2010. If this is incorrect and there are other instances, please let me know and I will have a look at every other instance.

On this blog the business card that was on offer at this venue was displayed.

This publication of the trademark is not for the provision of any of the goods or services set out in the ATMOSS extract. The publication does not confuse or deceive any reader that I represent that I provide any of those goods or services. No defamatory or untrue statements were published with respect to the trademark.

The purpose of publication was to report to readers what I was able to find to add substance to my belief that the ALH Group effectively ‘runs’ this venue and is therefore responsible for its conduct. I acknowledge that I am critical of that conduct with regard to unaccompanied children being allowed inside The Rex. That conduct was the subject of direct email correspondence with Woolworths Limited. Woolworths Limited controls a substantial interest in the ALH Group and is aware of my criticism.

Given the discussion in the media, academic papers and government inquiries, the conduct of gambling at pokie venues is a matter of public interest. The exposure of children to gambling areas inside pokie pubs and clubs is the subject of a joint statement of the Ministerial Council on Gambling and its prohibition being the first of the national principles for the conduct of responsible gaming machine activity. The matters reported and commented upon in the blog are matters of public interest.

A Google search of the Woolworths’ image returns many websites that display the image. This is common for many companies. The action taken with respect to the ALH Group logo is no different.

It is widespread practice for websites to display trademarks for purpose of comment. It is also the practice of news services, both electronic and print, to display trademarks when reporting or commenting. While I cannot say for certain for every instance, I am informed that prior consent is rarely sought nor obtained. Similarly, action taken with respect to the ALH Group logo was the subject of journalistic report and then fair comment made about the company's conduct.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with you. At the same time, it may be helpful to discuss the matters raised at the Woolworths Annual General Meeting relating to inexpensive and easy to implement harm minimisation measures that Mr Luscombe indicated that would be considered. They are:
  • promotion of self exclusion facilities by use of A4 sized notices
  • prohibition of simultaneous pokie gambling
  • placement and maintenance of posters and business cards in pokie venue toilets and smoking areas promoting assistance for problem gamblers
  • erection and maintenance of warning signs in all states regarding the prohibition and danger of leaving children in cars.

None of these measures appear to have been implemented in two associated venues I visited last week.

Sincerely,

It would be terrific if this all resulted in raising the standards of harm minimisation from pokie gambling and Woolworths / Mathieson associated pokie pubs and clubs.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Trademark Infringement or Fair Use

Today I received a virtual knock on my door from a courier announcing that there was a parcel from the ALH Group; the joint venture between Woolworths Limited and Bruce Mathieson's interests. Readers of this blog will recall that I have respectfully requested that this group implement effective measures to eliminate the presence of children in their venues for over two years. Here's a copy of the letter I signed for: Please click on the image to read the letter. It complains that I have used ALH trademark without consent and threatens legal proceedings should I not remove it from this blog.

You can see that the letter does not refer to where the trademark has been used. I reviewed all my blogs and the only place it clearly appears is on the business card reproduced on the blog titled "Who Runs The Rex". On that blog The Rex business card was reproduced solely to support my argument that The Rex is run by the ALH Group and, therefore; they were responsible for the unaccompanied children being inside the pokie club.

It is clear that I was not claiming to be or speaking on behalf of the ALH Group. Nor was I pretending to be the ALH Group or trying to sell anything. There was no deceptive conduct. No defamatory statements were made about the ALH Group's trademark. Given the numerous inquiries, academic papers, government studies and the Productivity Commission report, the discussion of the regulation of gambling is in the public interest.

There was criticism of the conduct of The Rex pokie club. It remains my view that it is not a place for children. No question about that.

If ALH Group are successful, then any trademark owner could restrain any comment that involves their use of their trademark. This would result in all news or commentary being prohibited from showing a company's trademark unless there was prior consent. There could be no Gruen Transfer, no Media Watch, no Top Gear, no consumer reports.

No broadcast news.

No newspapers.

No critical expression of opinion whatsoever.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Crime and Pokies.

Are pokie pubs and clubs safe places? Recent news reports indicate that Murray Wilcox QC was right when he made the observation on 'Crime' that "There will be an increase. The only question is the degree of increase".
Click here to read the full article. Incredibly it's from a December 1983 issue of The Age newspaper and the some of those prediction have come true. This blog will focus on the headline issue of the toxic mix of pokies and crime.

1. Torquay Golf ClubThis pokie venue is licensed to the motoring giant RACV. The 17 April Geelong Advertiser reported that a woman has been charged with stealing $187,000 from this venues pokies.

2. Armed robbery at Melbourne pokie pub and clubs
According to the 8 April Herald Sun, this married couple pleaded guilty to a strong of armed robberies hitting Woolworths associated venues, Glengala Hotel, Deer Park Hotel , Rifle Club Hotel, and racking up 15 armed robberies. They wielded a .357 Magnum.

3. Report to the Tasmanian Treasury Department
An examination of the effects upon Tasmania since gambling was introduced validated those opinions expressed in 1982. That study examined the relationship between gaming expenditure and crime. Here's a quote:
"A positive and significant relationship was found between gaming expenditure and some crime rates, particularly 'income generating crimes'"
While this finding should be qualified to the local context, it is a significant finding nevertheless.

I have noticed that a security guard now stands outside The Rex in Port Melbourne. Could this be to ensure that unaccompanied children are no longer allowed inside this venue (click here to see the photographs) or is it something even worse?

Friday, 2 April 2010

PokieWatch.org Is Two Years Old

Despite the lack of significant accomplishment, amazingly, I am still to convince pokie pub and club operators to at least keep children away from the sights and sounds of gambling inside their venues if not keep children out all together. This continues to be a failure.

There have been some mini steps in the right direction:
  • The joint statement of the federal and all state ministers that it was a principle of "the conduct of responsible gaming machine activity in clubs and hotels" that children should not "be exposed to gambling areas within venues."
  • Wesfarmers agreeing to implement the national principle regarding and restraining children being exposed to to the sights and sounds of gambling within their venues
  • The Draft Report of the Productivity Commission and its key recommendation of the $1 button push / $120 per hour loss limit / $20 cash acceptor maximum.
Outside of the continued effort regarding children, the most important initiative was to commission and then present Professor Kevin Harrigan's report to the Productivity Commission. This report sets out a simple solution that targets gamlers with the goal of reducing their consequent harm from pokie gambling. Implementing these solutions will have little affect upon recreational gamblers. They will be able to enjoy the existing features of pokie gambling.

The detail of the report is concerned about putting into action the Productivity Commission's key recommendation of the $1 button push / $120 per hour loss limit / $20 cash acceptor maximum. The report's focus is on the $120 per hour loss limit. Professor Harrigan has written the report in easy-to-understand English.

Please click here to read Professor Harrigan's report

The information is that these changes that will do so much good to reduce problem pokie gambling can be, at worst, implemented by software modification. At best, controls already exist within the pokie machine to simply dial down the volatility and the harm.

Some of these controls operate through a centralised computer that already directs simultaneous action across thousands of machines every minute.

It would take a matter of hours to implement. That's how close Australia could be to significantly reducing the harm of pokie gambling.

Hours....

Think about it....

Hours....

If only our regulators had the will.