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Woolworths under pressure to quit pokies

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Woolworths is the largest owner of pokie machines in Australia. Images: Getty
Woolworths is the largest owner of pokie machines in Australia. Images: Getty

Australia’s biggest poker machine stakeholder, Woolworths, could be forced to back away from the controversial industry as investment firms place increasing pressure on the supermarket giant.

Woolworths owns a majority stake of ALH Group, Australia’s largest pokies operator, owning more than 12,000 pokie machines across Australia.

But according to a Fairfax Media report, a major shareholder of the supermarket giant is pushing Woolworths to stop supporting pokie machines.

Perpetual Investments reportedly believes Woolworths’ engagement with ALH Group damages its reputation as a family-friendly business and considers it a business threat.

At time of writing, the news had gone so far as to impact Woolworths shares, down 3.12 per cent.

In a statement today, Woolworths said it would not comment on speculation.

“What we’re focused on with ALH is to continue to enhance its responsible gaming practices and quality service at the hotels."

Woolworths and ALH history

But Woolworths’ relationship the pokie machines has endured many other challenges. A whistleblower last year reported that staff at pokie venues owned by Woolworths offered extra free drinks to “high-value” gamblers and spied on gamblers - both contraventions against Woolworths’ responsible gambling commitment.

Staff at at least 22 venues were sacked by ALH.

At the time, Woolworths chairman Gordon Cairns said Woolworths took its community responsibilities seriously.

"The practices outlined in the investigation, at a limited number of hotels, are at odds with the priorities and values of our customers and the communities where we operate," Cairns said.

"The ALH Group has already put in place immediate measures to address the findings of this investigation and to further boost the commitment to responsible gaming.

"The Woolworths Group will continue to support the ALH Group on this journey."

According to anti-pokies lobby group, The Pokies Play You, Woolworth’s annual net pokie revenue comes to $1.2 billion, or 11.7 per cent of its annual profit.

Gambling in Australia: where the pokies fit

Research firm Roy Morgan reports poker machines as comprising 56.7 per cent of all dollars gambled in Australia, well above the amount wagered on sports and lottery tickets.

“Over 2.7 million Australians aged 18+ (14.2%) have used a poker machine in an average three months, significantly higher than the 2 million Australians (10.5%) who have placed a bet on a horse race, harness race, greyhounds or sporting event covered in last week’s release,” Roy Morgan chief Michele Levine said on the findings in April last year.

“The popularity of poker machines is highest in Queensland (17.2% of Queenslanders have played a poker machine in an average three months) and NSW/ACT (15.7%). Both of these States have a strong history of licensed ‘leagues clubs’ associated with sporting teams drawing the punters in.

“It’s worth understanding that over three-quarters of Australia’s 200,000 poker machines are located in NSW/ACT and Queensland.”

But according to a report by The Australia Institute, Australia has an incredible 76 per cent of the world’s pokies.

“In terms of machines per person, Australia is right up there with casino-states like Monaco, Macau and Caribbean Island nations,” report co-author Bill Browne said.

“Australia’s large number of poker machines and our unusual decision to allow them in pubs and clubs make us a global anomaly.”

The latest edition (2016-17) of the government’s Australian Gambling Statistics puts average per adult gambling expenditure at $1,251.39 - a decrease from previous editions.

But electronic gaming expenditure was up to $12.136 billion across the country.

Pokie danger

Anti-pokie Independent politician Andrew Wilkie said in a statement that pokies can cause crime, domestic violence, poverty and suicide.

And according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, pokies are “by far the biggest” cause of gambling-related harm, like the inability to pay bills or spend money to socialise, a descent into poverty, broken relationships and mental illness.

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