Woolworths Pokies Team Fined AUS$172k After Plying Gamblers With Alcohol

New South Wales authorities have penalised Australian supermarket giant Woolworths’ video poker (pokies) activities for plying free-booze customers in a effort to encourage their gambling.

The New South Wales Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority (ILGA) reported on Thursday a AU$172,692 (US$ 118,600) fine for plying pokie players with free drinks at two of its NSW hotels against Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group (ALHG), which is a majority owned by Woolworths.

In June 2019, the ILGA received a complaint against ALHG alleging that the Woolworths-owned Westower Tavern and South Tweed Tavern were in breach of NSW laws about “the supply of free or discounted liquor as an inducement to gaming machine players.”

The ILGA subsequently investigated 50 venues owned by ALHG, the third-largest pokie retailer in Australia, resulting in a formal investigation of four venues. The ILGA found that “tactics specifically designed to encourage gambling” were used by the Westower and South Tweed bars, including providing free alcohol to “regular and high-bid gamblers” to keep them sitting on the machines.

ALHG’s attempts to combat these claims were thwarted by internal communications as well as a response to the lawsuit lodged by former manager of the pubs, Andrew Wyeth, who told the ILGA that his ALHG bosses told him ‘the more, the better’ in terms of how much free alcohol was being given to high-rollers.

Wyeth was personally fined AU$1,000 for his involvement in the kerfuffle, while Westower’s current manager Rachel Watts was fined AU$2,500 and Morgan Bensley, the state operations manager of the venues, was barred for a five-year period from performing that involvement. The two venues were also directed to suspend their pokies operations for a duration of two weeks starting August 7.

Woolworths announced plans a year ago to spin off its pokies and liquor operations (including ALHG) into an independent company known as the Endeavour Group. Those plans were halted in March as COVID-19 forced all non-essential retail operations to be suspended. Next year, the demerger is now scheduled to take effect.