New Zealanders spent a record $2.1 billion on gambling in the last financial year, a 3.2 percent jump on the year before.
Spending on pokie machines and in casinos accounted for more than three-quarters of the expenditure, which doesn't surprise Andree Froude of the Problem Gambling Foundation.
She says regularly using pokie machines is the most harmful – and addictive – form of gambling.
"It's a continuous form of gambling, it's the product itself. Pokie machines are dangerous," she told Firstline this morning.
"What happens is, if somebody buys a Lotto ticket, for example, they have to wait for the result, whereas with a pokie machine it's instant. People are feeding the money in and they're getting an instant result.
"It encourages them to keep playing – they get near wins, the machine tells them they've nearly won. Often they might win a jackpot and they think, 'Well, I've had that win,' and it encourages them to go and try again, and they end up chasing losses."
Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain says tough times encourage gambling, but says last year's take was lower than 2004's record $2.04 billion when inflation is taken into account.
"Total gambling is in fact reducing in New Zealand," he told the New Zealand Herald.
Whether gambling losses are increasing or decreasing, Ms Froude says it's a hard addiction to crack.
"Gambling is quite tricky because it's so often hidden. With drugs or alcohol there's physical signs of addiction, but with addiction it can be quite tricky for a member of the family to pick it up.
"But seeking help is very, very important to get their lives back on track."
She is calling on pokie machines to be made "safer". One suggestion she has is forcing players to make a commitment before they sit down to how much time or money they are willing to spend in front of the machine, and sticking to it.
"Once they start gambling, it can be very difficult for them [to stop]," she says.
Host responsibility also matters, but Ms Froude says casinos and pubs often don't do enough to look after their patrons.
"They are legally bound to provide host responsibility, but often that doesn't happen… Host responsibility if vitally important."
Intervention is needed early to prevent gamblers developing an addiction.
"People do seek help with problems, but there's a lot of people out there who don't," says Ms Froude.
"Often they don't seek help until they've hit rock bottom – so we see a lot of people coming to us who are broken. They've lost everything – they've lost their relationships, their jobs, sometimes their houses. They're often suicidal."
Casino operator Sky City, which is negotiating a deal with the Government to allow it to install 300 extra pokie machines, says it takes its host responsibilities "very seriously" and has a programme "described as one of the best in the world by gambling experts", a spokesperson told the Herald yesterday.