Every week, the Illawarra feeds nearly $50 million through the pokies.
That’s a rate of $158 a week per resident and a yearly total of just under $2.5 billion.
A Mercury analysis of the latest Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority figures on poker machine turnover reveals the region pumped about $80 million more through gaming machines in 2014/15 than in the previous year.
And while the “turnover” figures refer to the total value of bets made on gaming machines – including bets that are made using credits won during the course of play – the losses are also staggering.
“The average return of all gaming machines over this period [was] about 90 per cent,” the spokesman said.
“However, the return during a single playing session varies - a player may win more than they put into a machine or they may lose more than 15%.”
Using these assumptions, the region lost a collective $250 million to the pokies in 2014/15.
Unsurprisingly, the Wollongong Local Government Area had the biggest poker machine turnover, with $1.85 billion pushed through more than 3000 gaming machines.
Averaged across the city’s 210,000 residents, that’s almost $8800 put through (or $880 lost) per resident.
In Shellharbour, $549 million was pushed through the city’s 868 gaming machines – roughly $7906 per resident each year.
In Kiama – where there are only 272 poker machines – the yearly turnover was $82 million, or $381 lost per resident.
Of course, these figures use the entire region’s population and no doubt include many people who don’t gamble, or can’t gamble because they’re children.
Associate Professor Melanie Gamble – a marketing researcher at the University of Wollongong – has been part of a team conducting research into gambling, and says average problem gamblers would be losing much more than the above figures.
“We know that pokies are more likely to be the gambling mechanism of choice for problem gamblers, and people who play the pokies are far more likely to become problem gamblers than those who engage in other forms of gambling,” Dr Randle said.
Indeed, national statistics show one in six people who play the pokies has a serious addiction, and three quarters of problem gamblers have problems with poker machines.
“Problem gamblers often come from groups within the community that are quite vulnerable - for instance [they] are more likely to be from backgrounds of disadvantage or lower socioeconomic status,” Dr Randle said.
“What this means is that money is being lost by particularly vulnerable groups, and while clubs say 'well, we redistribute the money to the community' and that may be true, it is not necessarily going back to the people that lost it.”
“So essentially many of the community services provided by clubs are helped being funded by the most marginalised and vulnerable people, who have an addiction.”
Statewide, NSW poker machine turnover was $73.3 billion in 2014-15, up from $68.9 billion the previous year.
The increase of $4.3 billion - or 6 per cent - was despite the number of gaming machines operating in NSW pubs and clubs falling by 244 to 93,364 in the same period.
Dr Randle said gambling was becoming “far more pervasive in our culture”, with increasingly sophisticated poker machines targeting specific people and becoming an accepted form of entertainment.
She also said young children were being exposed to poker machines because of their prevalence in family friendly clubs.
“In NSW most pokies are placed within clubs, and those clubs often include products that attract families and children, for example you can get cheap meals which suit families, they have 'kids eat free' promotions and playgrounds,” she said.
“In theory, the pokies are supposed to be out of sight within clubs, but in some of them you can see the poker machines from areas which do allow children.
“Some of the research we've done recently has shown that young children do know that poker machines are there - they see the lights, they hear music - and they are essentially becoming normalised as part of the club’s environment.”
For help: www.problemgambling.gov.au