The Central Coast's Pokie Addiction:
A STAGGERING $3.07 billion was pumped through Central Coast pokies last financial year as experts warn the region's problem gambling "hidden crisis" is only getting worse.
New figures released by Liquor and Gaming NSW show punters lost at least $306 million — or $1100 per adult — on the Coast's 4673 poker machines in 2015-16, an increase of about 2 per cent on the previous financial year.
It comes as local counselling services report a sharp rise in problem gamblers seeking help.
Coast Community Connections revealed 373 people sought help for problem gambling at local services last financial year, but that figure is on track to be eclipsed in 2016-17 with 209 already seeking counselling over the past five months.
"If it's alcohol, ice or any other drug, you can tell if someone's addicted — but with a gambling addiction, you can't tell as easily, which is making it a hidden crisis for the region," Chris Davidson, who has been counselling gamblers on the Coast for nearly 20 years, said.
"By the time a problem gambler come to us the damage is already done, whether it's through family breakups, fraud or some other gambling-related crime."
Latest research by AC Neilsen shows Central Coast males aged 18-24 are the State's biggest pokie addicts.
"This is a major public health issue," Mr Davidson said.
"Younger men are not just attracted to sports betting; pokie-machine addiction is a major concern among the 18-24 year olds, as the figures show.
"Overall, pokie addiction accounts for 80 per cent of all problem gamblers locally, despite the rise in sports betting."
He said there was also strong anecdotal evidence to link pokie and addiction to ice.
"Ice and poker machines go together like a pie and sauce. Where you get a rush with drugs, you get a similar rush at the pokies through 'wins' and the flashing lights and music," Mr Davidson said.
"It makes addicts want more of it.
"Research shows there is a 25 per cent overlap between drugs and alcohol and gambling addiction.
Earlier this year a Coast pokie addict was convicted and sentenced to six months' jail after defrauding Medicare of $44,134.
Woy Woy Local Court heard the 32-year-old was employed as a receptionist at medical centre where she fleeced the Commonwealth by making 345 fraudulent claims through Medicare's Easyclaim system between October 16, 2009, and May 19, 2013.
The total of the rebates amounted to $44,134, which she funnelled into her bank accounts to withdraw at licenced clubs to fuel her gambling addiction.
Experts say poker machines cultivate addiction by teaching the brain to associate the sounds and flashing lights that are displayed when a punter "wins" with pleasure.
The Productivity Commission says it is not uncommon for addicts to spend $400 or more on poker machines in as little as 10 minutes.
One Coast addict told the Express Advocate this week he pumped at least $4000 into the pokies in a recent four-hour "hammering".
"You're not aware of what you're doing; you're zoned out when you play the pokies. You wouldn't know or care if someone was getting stabbed around you; it's all about sitting there hitting buttons," Peter said.
MOST problem gamblers are addicted to one form of punting — but not Peter*.
At the height of his addiction he bet on "anything and everything" — even a gherkin race at a McDonald's restaurant.
"Me and a mate each threw a gherkin against a window and bet $500 on which one would slide down the fastest … I even managed to lose on that," Peter said after a counselling session for problem gamblers on the Central Coast this week.
He estimates he's lost about $700,000 — "basically a nice house" — over the past seven years punting mostly on pokies, Keno, horse racing and dogs.
"I started gambling when I was about 10, flipping coins for heads and tails and ringing up my dad's phone TAB account putting bets on for him," Peter, now in his mid-20s, said.
"It was always part of my family environment, and I've been gambling since then."
He said he was hooked on the pokies from the age of 15 (research shows most problem gamblers start punting at 14).
"I remember sitting on someone's lap at a club playing the pokies. I got an instant buzz with the lights and music — it was a massive high," he said.
Peter is also being treated for an addiction to the drug ice, which worsened his gambling woes.
A few years ago he went on a four-day gambling bender at Star City Casino, blowing $60,000.
"After I lost 40 grand at Star I went and got another 20 grand and ended up losing it all. It's just a cycle you get yourself in.
"I had a room upstairs and would have a bit of a break and come back down and go again.
"Every time I lost this big, I got the sweats and felt really anxious."
In one of his worst pokie sessions he lost $40,000 in about four hours.
"That was pretty bad. And another time I stole 50 grand off someone to play the pokies; it was pretty much drug money," he said.
"At Star City I'd put $500 in four machines and play them all at the same time. I didn't see it as real money at that time. And it only got worse when I was on drugs. I was on ice for five years — and dealing it — so money wasn't an issue."
His last big "blowout" came a month ago when he lost $20,000.
"I put $2000 on Keno and then put bets on the horses, which took me up to five grand, and it went on from there," Peter said.
"Looking back I was stupid to gamble so much over the years, because I'd have a lot more in life.
"My message now to young people is don't gamble. It can take control of your life and ruin it for you and loved ones."
* Peter is not his real name.
Source: Matt Taylor, (December 8 2016). 3 Billion Pumped Throung Central Coast Poker Machines in 2015-2016 financial year. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/central-coast/3-billion-pumped-through-central-coast-poker-machines-in-201516-financial-year/news-story/aaf8baaff97db1d39b57a7382be61834