The region's punters have poured more money than ever before into poker machines in 2021, with local hotels and clubs together winning a profit of more than $75 million from gamblers.
New data from Liquor and Gaming NSW shows that the 43 local clubs with a poker machine license made a stratospheric $60.5 million profit in the second year of coronavirus. The 38 licensed hotels made more than $14 million.
The annual total profit of $75 million compares with a profit of just $44 million in 2020, and $48.5 million in 2019 for local clubs and hotels.
In Inverell, profits rose by almost $2.5 million in 2021 earning more than $11m across 11 premises and 246 machines.
The Armidale Local Government Area recorded similar profits in 2019 and 2020 but jumped $8 million more the following year, recording more than $21.7m in profits in 2021. The region has about 20 licensed premises with more than 400 gaming machines.
Moree recorded the next greatest climb in profits, making more than $23.5m, $4m more in 2021 than the previous year.
Both earlier years were affected by circumstance, with the machines switched off for months in 2020 and losses in 2019 affected by the devastating drought, bushfire and water crises. Numbers are not adjusted for inflation.
Gambling assistance agencies have previously blamed a reported increase in gambling losses on coronavirus, which has driven both an increase in the number of people gambling and the amount they lose.
The leader of a local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) group, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they haven't seen a huge influx of new gamblers looking for help, despite the increase in need.
He last placed a bet a quarter-of-a-century ago, but still attends meetings weekly, for fear of a relapse.
"I gambled with money that I didn't have," he said.
"You lose all your own money and then you go to the bank and try and borrow money. In those days banks just basically lent you anything you wanted. And all you're doing is digging yourself a deeper hole.
"I bet on everything. I spent most of my time gambling on race horses. If I lost at the race horses, I could finish up at a club somewhere, if I had any money left, I start on poker machines."
Gamblers Anonymous uses a similar 12-step procedure to Alcoholics Anonymous to treat a different problem, which he describes as a "disease".
"The first meeting is the hardest one to get to. Because you don't know who's the other side of the door. You think to yourself 'I wonder if there's anyone there I know'. That turns a lot of people off."
Most members say it's the best thing that they ever did.
The leader strongly encouraged new gamblers to get in touch with GA NSW on 9726 6625.
He said the COVID-19 lockdowns have had a huge impact on people with gambling problems.
"If you're locked down in a house and you can't go out, there's every likelihood that when those restrictions are lifted the first thing you're going to do, if you're a gambler, is go and continue your gambling," he said.
"This has probably contributed to why gambling dollars have increased over the COVID period; once the lockdown restrictions are lifted, the first thing they headed for is a club or a pub where they can play poker machines. Or bet on race horses, whatever they want to do."
*Numbers from Liquor and Gaming are given as net profit, subtracting wins. LGAs are also at times grouped with other regions. To view six-monthly gaming machine reports yourself visit the Liquor and Gaming website.
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