Three months ago the Minns government announced all pubs and clubs would have to remove outdoor advertising promoting so-called VIP Lounges containing poker machines.
Gaming Minister David Harris said the “extremely prominent” signs put children and other community members at risk of “gambling harm”, promising to shut down the signs for “the health and wellbeing of our communities”.
Images of dragons and coins as well as words such as “VIP Room”, “Golden Room” and “Players’ Lounge” in connection with poker machines were outlawed.
Fast-forward three months, with the ban to start on Friday, some pubs and clubs already face accusations of using wordplay and colour schemes to tell locals: the pokies are still here.
At The Royal Sheaf Hotel in Burwood, located directly opposite a primary school, a huge digital sign had until recently shone the words “Phòng VIP” (“VIP Room” in Vietnamese) and other similar words in gold, red and blue text.
Today, that hotel, owned by the Nelson Meers Group, which owns the second-most profitable pokies venue in the state, has ditched the phrase from the screen and replaced it with its initials “RSH” rotating in a circle that looks almost identical to a coin. A deep red outline boxes the sparkling glittery background of the sign.
“You look at [that sign] and everyone knows exactly what that means,” said Jim Wackett, a campaigner at Wesley Mission, a not-for-profit that provides counselling to people addicted to poker machines.
“We have been [acclimatised] to understand what these colour schemes [signify],” he said.
“People who suffer from poker machine addiction have neural pathways that are triggered by colours and signs, so people walking down the street are almost just as likely to be triggered by those signs.” He cited Wesley Mission’s gambling counsellors who reported this occurring in extensive numbers.
The technique is reflected in pubs and hotels across Sydney. A near-identical look has been employed at The Oasis on Beamish, a Campsie hotel. There, “OBH” sits on the same rotating gold-coloured circle. But it’s not a coin.
The changes are the latest in a years-long game of cat and mouse between Liquor and Gaming NSW and publicans. Outdoor gaming signage has been illegal in the state since 2001 – but venue operators have slowly adapted imagery and terms to circumvent laws and inform the public that poker machines are inside.
“The Gaming Act is quite specific in that it bans signage that could be reasonably understood by people to indicate the presence of poker machines,” Wackett said. But a spokesperson for Gaming Minister David Harris could not clarify whether the specific examples provided by the Herald would be in breach of the new rules.
They said while there is no offence for advertising the name or operating hours of a venue, authorities “will take into account all circumstances in assessing whether particular signage may be non-compliant”.
“For example, if a sign solely promotes the venue’s gaming room (rather than general trading) hours it may nonetheless be considered in breach of the legislation,” they said.
The state government has previously said it will adopt a “staged approach” to the law’s implementation, with Liquor and Gaming authorities inspecting venues from Friday but only fining them up to $11,000 from December 1.
The refreshed rules are also part of a number of measures introduced by the Minns government to tackle gambling addiction across the state. A hot-button issue at the March election, both parties promised to act against NSW’s 100,000 poker machines. But Labor was regularly attacked by anti-gambling advocates who argued the party’s failure to endorse a cashless gaming card left the state unable to appropriately tackle gambling harm and money laundering.
Since July, the state government has reduced how much money can be put in new machines from $5000 to $500, and introduced new legislation that bans donations from clubs with pokies to political parties.
The venue owners did not respond to requests for comment.
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George Barham, an accomplished journalist and avid gambling enthusiast, serves as the esteemed Editor-in-Chief at fly-to-australia.com, Australia’s leading source for comprehensive gambling news and insights. With an unwavering passion for both the written word and the ever-evolving world of betting and gaming, George brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the helm of our editorial team.