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Despite pandemic shutdowns, unemployment, and other economic uncertainties, NZ retail casinos are reporting that gambling spend is up on pokies.

Comprehensive figures for 2020 were released showing that, as the months of the pandemic passed, New Zealanders spent increasing amounts on poker machines at land-based Kiwi casinos. The New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs updated its report about NZ casinos in August 2021 to reflect dataset for Class 4 expenditure by district including annual figures for the four main types of gambling activity – casino gambling, NZ Lotteries products, TAB racing, and sports betting and gaming machines (outside casinos).

The numbers showed that, for last year (2020), the spend on pokies equaled the equivalent of every adult spending $204 on gambling activities, with most of the spend taking place in December.

Gambling Expenditure Report

The Gambling Expenditure Report put out by the NZ Department of Internal Affairs includes data from 2007 and onward. It provides a cumulative annual summary of NZ casinos’ operator’s profits for the four main types of gambling activity. The report does not cover data about NZ online casino sites but the sites themselves report increases in online gaming worldwide including gamers who participate from the NZ region.

Between October and December 2020 the spend on poker machines was $252 million, the highest since the department began to compile records in 2007. According to Department of Internal Affairs director of gambling Chris Thornborough, the results were unexpected. "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 vigorous a bounce back as there was over the December quarter."

Pokies Leads

Overall gambling profits for New Zealand land-based casinos were down $128 million over 2019. The lack of access to bars, casinos, and clubs meant that many casino visitors couldn’t enjoy the entire casino entertainment package and therefore, chose not to go to the casino. But slot machine players and online lotto gamers were more active than ever, increasing spending on lotto tickets by 13% to $631 million in 2020.

Peter Dengate Thrush, chairperson of the Gaming Machine Association noted that the upturn in gaming machines’ patronage was part of a wider trend. "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 RZN Radio New Zealand. “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."


Despite the efforts of anti-gambling activists to more closely regulate pokies in New Zealand, the government and many sectors of the community are pleased with the upturn in pokies gaming. New Zealand law states that 40% of pokies proceeds must be distributed to community organizations as grants.

Thrush commented, "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."

Martin Cheer, chief executive of the Pub Charity, a watchdog which is charged with ensuring that funds raised in gaming machines are properly distributed in the community, said that he wasn’t surprised with the upturn. “A significant number that is 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."

Cheer said that the increase in gaming machine play and purchases through the lotto is part of a bigger trend of online gaming. He cautioned, however, that the government must make more of an effort to make sure that New Zealanders are exposed, as much as possible, to only legal forms of online gambling. "It's inevitable that we're going to see this migration of lots of activities to online including gambling but unfortunately lots of it's offshore and unregulated. It doesn't produce any returns for the community, it can't be taxed. So it's a very disruptive and destructive trend for the industry."

Problem Gambling

The increase in pokies play, as opposed to other types of gambling, emphasizes the point that anti-gambling activists have been trying to make for many years – that poker machines are addictive. Paula Snowden, Problem Gambling Foundation chief executive said that she wasn’t surprised.

She said that half of New Zealand’s pokie machines were located in disadvantaged areas. "Our clients told us that they experienced only relief when the venues were closed during lockdowns last year,” said Snowden to RNZ. “But we know they returned to pokie gambling….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."

In New Zealand pokie machines are found in pubs, clubs and hotels. They are operated by charitable foundations. Anti-gambling activists say that they are the most dangerous form of gambling in New Zealand. By law the machines must have Player Information Displays to tell the player how much s/he has lost and how long s/he has been playing. The displays also encourage the player to take breaks.