Why Woolies scaling down their pokies interests is important - Alliance for Gambling Reform

Why Woolies scaling down their pokies interests is important

By Tony Mohr, Executive Director AGR

I’d like to answer a few questions about why the Alliance for Gambling Reform was so happy about Woolworths’ recent announcement about reducing their pokies holdings. 

Why is pokies divestment important? 

The strategy to push the AFL, Coles, Woolworths and RSL clubs out of pokies is a calculated one. It is a tactic the Alliance for Gambling Reform has adopted to reduce the power of the industry and create the conditions for reform. It is a powerful indicator of progress because every time one of these organisations decides to get out, they tacitly acknowledge that the damage done to their reputation by owning pokies outweighs the benefits of the cash they bring in. Every rejection of poker machines is done in recognition that the machines are devastating people’s lives.

This was best demonstrated in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article, where Woolworths’ former communications director said: “(Woolworths’) decision to get out of pubs - and pokies - indicates a brave new world of conscience-led corporate strategy could be here sooner than we might have anticipated. What that means for the current ranks of company directors and senior executives remains to be seen. Whether they like it or not, the activists’ voices are ringing loudly.”

That’s you! The Alliance and our fantastic supporters making headway in the fight to reduce gambling harm. Together we are making it clear how dangerous pokies can be to people and our communities, and business is responding. 

This is not just a moral win, it’s a strategic win too. The more an industry is exposed for the damage it causes, the more it becomes socially unacceptable to be making money from an industry causing harm,  and the easier it is for governments to tighten regulations.

Of course, one of our longer-term goals is to have pokies licences extinguished so they can no longer cause harm. 

Are there other examples of where this strategy has worked?

Yes! There is an excellent precedent in minimising harm caused by addiction that we can use. That precedent is smoking. 

In 2019, it’s not unreasonable to view gambling as the new tobacco. Just like cigarettes, pokies are designed to addict, are harmful to health, and are viewed as part of the furniture in our pubs and clubs. Just as the tobacco industry sought out sporting sponsorships and naming rights to bolster its legitimacy by association, the gambling industry also relies on household brands and community clubs to lend legitimacy to their toxic products.

Australia now has world-leading harm minimisation tobacco laws, but it certainly wasn’t always this way. In 1964, the US Surgeon General handed down the report ‘Smoking and Health’, now regarded as a watershed moment. In that same year almost six in 10 men and one third of women in Australia smoked. Every pub, club, restaurant and workplace was filled with toxic tobacco smoke. To health workers advocating for reform, it must have seemed both urgent and yet impossible to turn smoking around from hyper-normalised to heavily regulated. That’s how so many of us feel now in relation to gambling.

But governments didn’t respond to the Surgeon General’s evidence of harm to health from tobacco in 1964. And in 2001 and 2010 governments failed to respond to the evidence of harm to health from gambling outlined in Productivity Commission reports. Why? Because politicians have always carried out the mental arithmetic of political costs when considering whether to tighten laws on a damaging industry. Unfortunately, right now the mental maths politicians are doing doesn’t come out against gambling, and that’s why the work we do with our supporters to keep pressure on politicians and the industry is so important.

It took several decades of persistent work by dedicated reformers to shift the tobacco industry from being politically untouchable to so toxic no politician would be caught in the same room as a tobacco boss. Early efforts to undo these relationships were vital because they paved the way for tighter regulations in years to come. 

Four years ago all but one Victorian AFL club ran pokies pubs. Coles ran pokies pubs and Woolies was the biggest operator of machines in the country, raking in more money from them than Crown and Star Casino pokies combined. Their shift away from the industry marks a necessary step towards tough laws for the entire industry. We are making progress and it’s important to celebrate victories, even when they are not perfect ones.

But don’t the machines just get sold somewhere else?

For the people whose lives have been torn apart by the 12,000 Woolworths-owned machines, this will be a hollow victory. The decision to get out now doesn’t undo the damage already done -- the lives lost, the families estranged, the years of poverty and social isolation. None of the former operators of poker machines have recognised or apologised for the damage they have profited from. The terrible harm they are responsible for will not be forgotten or forgiven.

We know the machines will be sold to other operators, and will go on fleecing people day in, day out. Divestment is important, but it is not enough. 

We're not prohibitionists, but one thing is clear -- Australia has far too many poker machines in our pubs, clubs and casinos. When a club or pub wants to do the right thing and get out of the gambling industry, the machines should come out of circulation for good. 

Where to from here when it comes to Woolworths?

On the long road to reduce gambling harm, having Woolworths, Coles, the AFL and RSL clubs decide that pokies are too toxic to be associated with is an essential step. It is by no means a silver bullet, but it is evidence that the tides are turning, and the era of unbridled and unaccountable industry harm is coming to an end.

For decades the industry has used “blame the victim” tactics and projected shame on the people harmed by gambling. These disgusting tactics aren’t working though. We will continue to support the people who’ve survived the trauma caused by the gambling industry to join with us in speaking truth to power, to take back control and bring home the horrific impacts of the gambling industry. How can those in a position to effect change in all good conscience not listen, and then act, after hearing from people who have survived the damage done by pokies?  This is no small task, but it is an essential one. 

Tobacco control reformers used these tactics, and many others, to secure incredible reductions in harm to health, and the gambling reform movement will need to do the same. If we do, the scale of change achieved for tobacco can be achieved for gambling. I hope you’d agree that if we can get a real shift in attitudes against gambling to the point we are at in Australia when it comes to smoking, then we will have made real progress towards minimising gambling harm.

I hope this addresses any questions you may have, but please feel free to reach out if you want any further information. Just email us at info@agr.org.au.