Australia's escalating addiction to gambling

They are the machines that anti-gambling campaigners in Australia say have the addictive "force of cocaine" that are fuelling an avalanche of debt, divorce and misery.

Gambling losses in Australia are at a record high after punters frittered away almost A$24bn (£14bn; $18bn) in a year, according to data compiled by the Queensland state government this month. More than half was lost on poker or slot machines at pubs and clubs.

"Gambling in Australia is the equivalent of guns in America," asserts Tim Costello, a spokesman for the Alliance for Gambling Reform. "The gambling industry has captured politics really in the way the National Rifle Association does in America, so we aim to reform that."

Australia has 20% of the world's poker machines, known colloquially as the "pokies". In Western Australia they are confined to a single casino, but they are common elsewhere.

Mr Costello believes that gambling stress pushes more than 400 Australians to suicide each year, a figure that has been given credence by Australia's Productivity Commission. Mr Costello mostly blames devices that are "built for addiction, releasing the dopamine (a mood-setting chemical) that hits your brain with the force of cocaine."

Addicts, he tells the BBC, "describe entering a zone where their problems simply dematerialise - it completely neutralises the anxiety".

Australia has more slot machines per person than almost any other country. It has nearly 200,000 in total.

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