Slot machine with jackpot. Casino concept.
Slot machine with jackpot. Casino concept.

Pokies’ lure on rise in floods aftermath

AN attempt to escape the stress of catastrophic flooding or a flush of emergency cash handouts could be behind Townsville's staggering $18 million spend on the pokies, experts have said.

New data has revealed residents in Townsville spent a total of $18.6 million on the city's 1530 pokie machines in February and March. Townsville poker machines hauled in $9.5 million in March alone, the second highest month for earnings in three years.

James Cook University Associate Professor of Psychology Wendy Li said previous studies had shown substance abuse and gambling increased after life-threatening events.

She said it was also possible that residents could have been chasing quick money.

"A perceived threat to life increases risk-taking behaviour," Prof Li said.

"When people face the threat of a natural disaster and people's thinking changes, they may perceive they have more chances of winning money … (and) with the money they can pay for the bill caused by the disaster.

"Also when people are ­desperate they may get ­comfort from gambling and they can forget the situation caused by the flood."

More than 2700 homes were damaged during the catastrophic flood and more than 87,700 claims were processed for Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and Disaster Recovery Allowance, totalling more than $100 million.

Post-doctoral fellow at CQ University's Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory Dr Alex Russell said ­the gambling spend increased when people came across ­unexpected extra income.

Traditionally this is around July and August when people receive their tax returns. Flood-affected Townsville ­residents were granted $180 each in emergency funding ­following the catastrophe, while those whose homes flooded were eligible for $1000 in ­disaster cash.

"One (factor) is that people gamble on the pokies to escape from their problems because you can sit there and hit these buttons, and completely disassociate and not pay attention to what's around you," Dr Russell said.

"So for people experiencing a stressful time, and I would argue that flooding is a pretty stressful time for a lot of people, things like that where you can tune out and avoid your problems become attractive."

Dr Russell said another possible factor was people choosing to socialise after the floods.

"Often a place to come ­together is a hotel or pub that happens to have pokies in them," he said.

Lucy Stephens, gambling help program manager at ­Centacare North Queensland, said it was likely gambling ­increased post-floods just as increased spending on other non-essential items had.

"Everyone can be at risk of problem gambling, including those who have extra funds to spend," she said. "We find the impacts of problem gambling are varied and not just financial, such as the amount of time people spend on gambling can take them away from their family causing a greater impact on relationships, work and other situations."

Centacare North Queensland provides counselling for problem gamblers and their families.