CANBERRA (Reuters) - Oscar-winning Australian actor Russell Crowe is fighting a new gladiatorial combat to wean his countrymen off their addiction to gambling machines.
Crowe has become the public rally point for opposition to the ringing, flashing game consoles, known as "pokies," that fatten the profits of Australian pubs and clubs, relieving gamblers of up to A$10 billion dollars ($8.8 billion) a year.
More than 200,000 machines, or 21 percent of the world's total, cram social venues across the country, chiming away in corners as they feed the gambling addiction of up to 300,000 people, according to frustrated welfare agencies.
But Crowe is heading a revolt after convincing the board of his Sydney football club last month to dump scores of machines raking in A$1 million a year.
"Russell threw down the gauntlet and said 'Can we do this?'," said Crowe's club co-owner, millionaire businessman Peter Holmes a Court. "We put a proposal for a family-friendly club, an inclusive club," Holmes a Court said.
Crowe's protest against machines, which are also known as "one-armed bandits" after their operation lever on the side, has led to a bout of introspection by gambling-mad Australians.
Pokies account for five times the dollars spent at the racetrack in Australia and centre-left Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd won strong support ahead of his November election with a line-in-the-sand against the gambling machines. "I hate poker machines and I know something of their impact on families," Rudd said.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore joined Rudd's condemnation, with pokies in her city alone turning over almost A$2.5 billion.
"Australia's sad boast is that it has more than one-fifth of all the poker machines in the world," Moore wrote in a newspaper.
"I am delighted by the prime minister's quoted comments and hope that, finally, we will wean ourselves off our shameful reliance on the income from these machines of misery," she said.
Since their introduction 50 years ago, pokies have spread across most Australian states except for Western Australia, where they are restricted to casinos. They dominate the atmosphere in many pubs and clubs, sometimes drawing busloads of gamblers.
Welfare agencies say the machines are particularly harmful because they are concentrated in poor areas, where many of the dollars they suck in come from national welfare payments, and target problem gamblers who can ill-afford to play the machines.
But state governments are reluctant to ban consoles or cut their number because of the revenue lifeline they provide through gambling taxes, particularly in the most populous New South Wales state, where 100,000 machines pull in A$2 billion a year.
A new study on Thursday said state governments had become addicted to the huge revenue provided by pokies and the industry escaped tough regulation because of the revenue.
"These revenues arguably rely on unsafe consumption practices, generating considerable harm," said the Australian study in the latest International Gambling Studies journal.
Authors of the report, Charles Livingstone and Richard Woolley from Monash and Western Sydney universities, called for official recognition that poker machines fuel problem gambling.
"It would be a major advance if governments simply admitted that they're in it for the money, because money can be replaced," the authors told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
"What can't be replaced is the self-respect, mental health and peace of mind of those who continue to be harmed," they said.
But it is Crowe who has galvanized public opposition, setting up "A club with no pokies" page on internet network site Facebook and printing thousands of t-shirts bearing his anti-gambling message for the community around his South Sydney Rabbitohs club.
"This is a watershed moment in addressing the scourge of gambling after governments have failed," said Pat Daley, a spokesman for welfare agency The Salvation Army.
Editing by Jeremy Laurence