CANBERRA, Jul 19, 2002 (AsiaPulse via COMTEX) — New figures have revealed that Australians spent $A13.8 billion ($US7.62 billion) on organised gambling in the financial year ending June 30, 2002, including poker machines, lotto, and horses racing.

On average, each Australian adult gambled $944 in 2000/01, up 21 per cent since 1997/98, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) said.

Pokies and gaming machines accounted for nearly two thirds of gambling spending, raking in $8.7 billion last year, a 39 per cent increase over the past three years.

Other popular forms of gambling were off-course TAB outlets, where punters spent $1.7 billion, casino gaming tables ($1.5 billion) and lotteries and lotto-style games ($1.3 billion).

The jump in spending prompted a warning from church leaders that gambling was reaching epidemic proportions.

Salvation Army spokesman John Dalziel said poker machines were responsible for 90 per cent of gambling problems.

“Problem gamblers gravitate to poker machines (because) they’re convenient … they’re usually only a couple of kilometres from your house,” he said.

Mr Dalziel said another concern was the increasing speed with which people could lose money in poker machines.

“Now people can lose up to $5,000 in an hour from UFA poker machines,” Mr Dalziel said.

The report showed average gambling expenditure in NSW and Victoria – of $1,154 and $1,144 per adult respectively – was substantially higher than Western Australia ($427 per adult) where pokies were not allowed except in the state’s casino.

Mr Dalziel, who is also chairman of Victoria’s Interchurch Gambling Taskforce, said the Commonwealth needed to force the states to take action on problem gambling.

However, he said the states were loath to clamp down because of the income generated from gambling.

According to the ABS figures, gambling taxes and levies paid $4.9 billion into government coffers in 2000/01, with 55 per cent of the income coming from pokies, the ABS said.

Reverend Tim Costello, a member of the National Advisory Body on Gambling, wants the federal government to revisit a 1999 Productivity Commission report, which called for greater government control over the gambling industry.

“It’s been three years since the Productivity Commission report and things are much worse,” he said.

“We are spiralling further out of control.”

Rev Costello said recent ACT data showed that 48 cents in every dollar going through a poker machine came from problem gambling.

Meanwhile, Victorian figures indicated gambling was the cause behind one suicide every fortnight, Rev Costello said.

Gambling was taking its toll on the wider community, with one third of problem gamblers funding their habit through crime, he said.

Family and Community Services Minister Amanda Vanstone said the Government was working with the states and territories to develop a policy to address the negative aspects of problem gambling.

“The states and territories get an enormous amount of revenue from gambling and I think that they should be using more of this to fund positive social programs to address its effects within the community,” she said.

The federal government will spend $8.4 million over four years for further research into gambling and public education campaigns.

The Australian Gaming Council said the industry was a major creator of jobs, with 9,000 new positions created over the past three years.

The ABS figures were based on the takings of 6,012 gambling establishments in Australia.