Australian gambling losses have hit an all-time high after punters burned through nearly $24 billion in a year, more than half of which was poured into poker machines at pubs and clubs across the country.
New government statistics reveal pokies losses grew 4.2 per cent nationally, roughly double the rate of inflation to reach $12 billion in 2015-16, while sports betting remained the fastest-growing form of gambling.
Pokies accounted for the largest share of losses ($23.6 billion), followed by casinos ($5.2 billion), racing ($2.9 billion) and Lotto ($1.9 billion).
The surge in sports betting, up 13 per cent on the previous year, was largely fuelled by the expanding popularity of internet and app-based wagering. But sports betting still takes a comparatively smaller share of Australia's overall gambling losses, with expenditure of $920 million.
An anti-pokies lobby group, the Alliance for Gambling Reform, said the damning figures should prompt urgent political action to start bringing yearly gambling expenditure at least below $20 billion.
"Whilst sports betting is top of mind with the advertising deluge ... the latest national figures once again confirm that the pokies are easily the biggest contributor to Australia's tragic status as the world's biggest gamblers," alliance spokesman Tim Costello said.
"Politicians and regulators across Australia should be actively managing down annual losses to below $20 billion, not standing around doing little as they continue to grow faster than the broader economy."
The Australian Gambling Statistics released last week is the most comprehensive set of all state and territory gambling data and is compiled by the Queensland government.
The release of the new data comes as the pokies industry has been embroiled in renewed controversy and the issue of problem gambling faces national attention.
An unprecedented lawsuit launched in September by a former gambling addict, which remains before the Federal Court, has aired allegations that the features of a popular model of poker machine, Dolphin Treasure, are unlawfully deceptive and designed to addict users.
Weeks later, billionaire James Packer's flagship casino, Crown Melbourne, was hit with damaging accusations in federal Parliament from unidentified gaming-floor technicians that they had been ordered to tamper with poker machines to ensure punters lost more money, claims that Crown denies.
And, last month, supermarket giant Woolworths' annual general meeting was dominated by shareholder scrutiny of its majority-owned Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group, which runs hundreds of pokies-owning pubs.
In response to sustained questioning from the Alliance for Gambling Reform at the meeting, Woolworths said it treated calls for reform seriously and would compile data on proposals including $1 bet limits, $200 EFTPOS daily withdrawals limits over the bar at venues, and cutting opening times from up to 20 hours a day.
"The first thing is to get the data, and the next logical step would be to say, if we trial this, does it actually reduce the incidence of problem gambling?" Woolworths chairman Gordon Cairns said.
"And if there's a compelling analysis coming out of that, then we've committed to coming back and reporting them."
With more than 12,000 poker machines across its venues, the Woolworths-controlled ALH Group is the largest pokies operator in the country.
A spokesman for ALH Group said the company was an industry leader in tackling problem gambling, and the only pokies operator to provide systems for punters to pre-set time or spend limits on every gaming machine it owns on mainland Australia.
ALH also heavily promoted employee and customer awareness about gambling risks through a "responsible gambling ambassador", the former AFL footballer and reformed problem gambler David Schwarz. And it offered a self-exclusion program under which punters could limit thier access to slot machines by banning themselves from one or more gaming venues, the spokesman said.
According to the fresh gambling statistics, New South Wales has the most poker machines of any state, and also had the biggest increase in pokies losses in 2015-16, a rise of 6.2 per cent. Pokies losses in NSW topped $6 billion, accounting for nearly half of the Australia-wide total. And it was the first time in 10 years that the state's pokies losses exceeded $1000 per capita.
Mr Costello said Australia lost more money gambling per capita than any other country. Data from global consultancy H2 Gambling Capital puts Australia's total gambling losses per resident adult at about $1000 a year, the highest amount in the world.
"The best that can be said about the latest national gambling statistics is that at least the 2014-15 growth rate of 7.7 per cent to $22.7 billion has slowed to an increase of 3.9 per cent," Mr Costello said.
"But when you are the world's biggest gamblers and 40 per cent clear of the next country, Singapore, in per capita terms, it is nothing to celebrate."
Despite rising overall gambling losses, the hotels industry said the rate of problem gambling was, in fact, declining.
Australian Hotels Association chief executive Stephen Ferguson said less than 1 per cent of the population was affected by problem gambling.
"The Productivity Commission noted in its 2010 report that the prevalence of problem gambling had declined," he said, "and recent state and territory surveys have shown this trend to be continued."