It's a weekday night at the Welcome Stranger pub in downtown Melbourne. Tom Cummings, who used to be a regular here, shows me around the gaming room.
"This machine here, which is called Shaman's Magic, has four different jackpots that you can win. If you'd like to give it a whirl, you can see how you go," says Cummings.
The machines here take Australian $50 bills (Australian dollars are currently worth almost exactly the same as U.S. dollars). You can lose $1,200 in an hour. And a win is not always what it appears to be.
The machine's electronic reels spin until they come to a stop and the device emits a sort of electronic burp. The machine registers a "win" of 20 cents. But it cost 50 cents to play.
"It's what the industry calls a loss disguised as a win. It sounds like a win. The symbols flash on the screen, but you've actually lost money," Cummings says.
There's a reason Cummings is explaining and not playing. In 1995, at age 24, he got hooked on the machines, known as "pokies."
His habit cost him hundreds of dollars a day. After three years, he was broke and $30,000 in debt. He fooled himself into thinking he could win it back, he says, and he deceived those around him to conceal his addiction.
In Australia, most gambling is done on slot machines. Australians spend an estimated $13 billion a year on the pokies in pubs, clubs, hotels and casinos. They've become a more prominent political issue recently, with some lawmakers, including the prime minister, talking about the possibility of setting some limits.
Easy To Get Addicted
"I was addicted to playing poker machines but I was also trapped in a lie that I couldn't get out of without exposing what I was doing," says Cummings. "So the lie just kept on building and building. I became so good at lying that it would actually scare me at how easily I was able to just rattle off something."
Cummings' facade collapsed one evening when his fiancee went to a cash machine and found the bank account empty.
"And she came to me and said, 'Where's the money?' And for the first time in years, I couldn't think of a single explanation I could give her that would actually satisfy the question. And I just had to say, 'I'm sorry, I spent it all on poker machines.' And she broke down. She was horrified, cause she had no idea."
Richard Evans, executive director of Clubs Victoria, which represents social and sporting clubs in the state of Victoria, says gambling is part of Australia's culture.
"The old adage of betting on two flies crawling up the wall, who would get to the top first is a cliche, but it's quite true about Australians. They like to have a bet," he says.
Besides, he argues, gambling is a matter of personal choice and responsibility that the government should stay out of.
"I think it's an overstatement that we should criticize and penalize all in the community for a small group of less than 0.5 percent of the community with a gambling problem," he says. "And gambling problems can't be fixed by regulation, but they can be fixed through health policy, and I think governments should spend more time on health policy."
Public health advocates agree. But they advocate spending up front to diminish the harm gambling does. Or, as Cummings puts it, it's better to have "a fence at the top of the cliff, than an ambulance at the bottom."
Setting Limits For Gamblers
Last year, Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised that in the future, poker machine players would have to set a daily limit on how much they were prepared to lose. Her real aim, critics say, was to a cut a deal with an anti-gambling lawmaker whose backing would give her a majority in Australia's hung Parliament.
But the clubs threatened to campaign against anti-gambling lawmakers, and Gillard retreated, calling only for voluntary daily limits, and pushing the reforms back two years.
Anti-gambling advocates assailed Gillard's proposal, saying that anyone who voluntarily accepts a daily limit on his or her betting losses is, by definition, not a serious problem gambler.
"As one of the commentators said, it looks like the poker machine lobby in Australia is more powerful than the government," says Charles Livingstone, an expert on gambling and public health at Melbourne's Monash University. "I have to say it's pretty hard to disagree with that view."
"The biggest addicts in Australia are the state governments," he argues. "But behind them are the big sporting organizations."
Livingstone quotes research showing that 40 percent of the money put into the pokies comes from problem gamblers. He accuses the pokies industry of preying on society's most vulnerable members, wiping out traditional businesses and reshaping the suburbs of Australian cities.
"Australian cities are ringed with suburb after suburb, all of which have been built in the last few years — lots of people, not much to do, and those are the places which are the true face of poker machine gambling in Australia," he says. "They look pretty glitzy, they provide facilities, but they hollow out the community and they're a locus for the formation of problem gambling."
Livingstone cites surveys findings that 70 percent of Australians feel that pokie gambling is out of control and want more regulation. Meanwhile, the balance of power in Parliament is shifting, so now the prime minister may be looking again at cutting a deal with anti-gambling lawmakers.