Gaming venues have been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus, but the statistics for Ballarat show an increase in spending to that point.
The 2019-20 financial year statistics, released by the Victorian Commission for Liquor and Gambling Regulation, indicate spending on electronic gaming machines was increasing from last year - every month recorded an increase in spending compared to the previous year except for December.
The statistics note $43,713,216.26 was spent across 14 Ballarat gaming venues between July 1 and March 16, compared to $57,540,687.41 in the 12 months between July 1 and June 30 in 2018-19.
The three and a half month break from pokies may be enough to help people who experience a problem with gambling to come to the realisation they need help, experts say.
Venues were forced to close on March 16, and despite a relaxation on some restrictions in regional areas, gaming venues remained closed.
Ballarat Community Health research coordinator Dr Deb Greenslade said she had heard promising stories from the lockdown period.
"Anecdotally, what we've heard is COVID-19 had provided a lot people with a welcome reprieve from problem gambling," she said.
"We've heard stories of people being able to pay bills and buy birthday presents for the first time in a while - it's one silver lining to come out of a dreadful situation."
The key will be whether people realise they need help, and whether they reach out to get it, she added.
"We know we have such good services locally, and it makes such a difference to reach out - all the supports that are available are effective," she said - BCH and Cafs in Ballarat, among others, have gambling support specialists.
She noted other forms of gambling could be seeing an increase while venues were closed.
"We know that sports betting has gone up a lot, but hopefully people haven't transferred - poker machines (are) still by far the highest spend on gambling, even though sports betting is the highest growing category," she said.
BCH will soon be rolling out a new campaign aiming to promote alternatives to gambling - titled All-In, it will feature local imagery and partnerships, including with the state government.
"We know a lot of people go to the pokies because they're lonely, or isolated, but the machines are designed to keep people playing so that can often have worse consequences than the loneliness," Dr Greenslade said.
"We've heard stories that some people are keen for them to open again, to socialise, but others are determined not to go back, or to the same level."
State Member for Buninyong, Michaela Settle, has first-hand experience of the life-altering consequences of problem gambling in her own family.
She said it needed to be seen as a mental health issue, and reiterated calls for the stigma surrounding talking about problem gambling to be broken down.
"We talk about whether this period will be enough of a break for people - probably what it will have provided is a bit of breathing space," she said.
"I hope people have identified they might have a problem, (in isolation) you would notice your impulses more, and I would hope people can identify that and reach out for some help."
Ms Settle said the hardest part was encouraging people who might have a problem to engage with support.
"If you're worried, if you're thinking about it, reach out, it could be a family member or friend - I look back and think if my husband at that stage, had my husband been able to reach out, would we have had a different outcome," she said.
The state government will be rolling out a number of new initiatives, including a new code of conduct in September, but more could be done, she added.
One program which had been successful was Libraries After Dark, where community facilities like libraries remained open as late as 10pm to run engaging programs and provide social outlets for people.
"I'm not a big believer in prohibition, i don't think banning things is the way to go, it's about addressing the root causes," Ms Settle said.
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"I applaud the City of Ballarat and the Sebastopol Library for applying for a grant (for Libraries After Dark), they had really good success."
While the program has been suspended during the pandemic, Ms Settle said these sorts of programs could be lifesavers, particularly for people who relied on gaming venues for social interaction.
"We need to look at those ideas, how do we scoop those people up who are isolated, and Libraries After Dark is a great approach," she said.
"I want to see this through the mental health frame, and address gambling through that."
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