ALH Group has been fined $172,000 after two of its northern New South Wales pubs were found to have illegally supplied free alcohol to patrons in their gaming rooms.

Liquor & Gaming NSW inspected 53 ALH venues across the state and formally investigated four, finding that in 2017 Westower Tavern in Ballina and South Tweed Tavern had systemically supplied gaming patrons with free alcohol. Under NSW gaming laws, it is illegal to offer or supply free or discounted alcohol to induce gambling. ALH cooperated with the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) in all of its NSW venues during the investigation.

Executive director of investigations and enforcement, Valerie Griswold, said both venues had implemented tactics specifically designed to encourage gambling.

“A system whereby gamblers were given free liquor ‘shouts’ was captured in daily reporting targets and tied to gaming profits and staff performance.

“Staff were encouraged to seek out regular and high bidding gamblers for free drinks – a process that was documented and managed through reports and staff emails,” stated Griswold.

“This practice illegally used alcohol to boost gambling and what it does, essentially, is reduce a person’s control of their gambling.”

ALH was formally reprimanded and the hotels banned from operating their EGMs for two weeks. The licensees of the two pubs were fined $3500, and ILGA also banned ALH manager Morgan Bensley from the industry in NSW for five years.

The two licensees were also ordered to pay $172,692 in costs, but ALH agreed to pay the sum.

As part of the decision, ILGA gave more weight to the improved managerial measures that ALH has voluntarily introduced, following an internal inquiry conducted at the company’s initiative by external legal counsel and the self-reporting of issues to the department. These steps moderated what may have otherwise been a more severe regulatory response.

An ALH spokesperson said in a statement that while they are reviewing the decision, they take responsible gaming practices seriously and have taken steps to change the culture and procedures in their gaming rooms.

“The findings of the report by the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) relate to activities at two of our hotels in Northern New South Wales in 2017.

“What we’re focused on at ALH is holding ourselves to the highest standards. We take our obligations for the Responsible Service of Gaming and the Responsible Service of Alcohol in all our venues extremely seriously.

“When this issue was first raised in 2017, ALH commissioned a full review of our responsible gambling programs and operations across all venues. As a result of that review, we took a number of significant steps to enhance our responsible gaming practices, improve training for our venue leadership teams and preclude the service of complimentary alcohol in gaming rooms. ILGA has acknowledged the work undertaken by ALH within its findings.

“ALH is currently reviewing the final decision and penalty decision by ILGA.”

ILGA chair calls for law change

ILGA Chair Philip Crawford said the fine reflects the seriousness of establishing an administrative system to incentivise gambling.

“ALH management was fully aware of what was happening in their venues due to the formal process in place to maintain the shout system.

“This system, instead of identifying at risk gamblers with a view to helping combat their problem, targeted them to further encourage their gambling,” stated Crawford.

“An operator owned by one of Australia’s biggest and most recognisable companies should run its businesses to the highest legal and ethical standards and be mindful of its capacity to cause harm to vulnerable people.”

While calling out ALH, Crawford also told the ABC that he wants the law changed so that venue owners could be fined directly, rather than fining licensees. He said that he would be discussing the issue with legislators.

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