Shining a light on gaming and gambling - Maurice Cauchi
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Shining a light on gaming and gambling - Maurice Cauchi

Malta is being touted as Europe’s igaming capital of Europe, and this is being hailed as the economic nirvana that shines on the horizon.

Everybody likes a bet and, as the poet sings, “hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Tomorrow someone may become rich, and one can spend blissful hours clicking electronic gadgets to simply while away the time.

Gaming and gambling may be sisters but are really quite different. The former, often in the form of internet gaming (igaming), refers to the practice of spending hours on computers large or small, indulging in the various games that keep being developed and which can devour hours of the day and night. It is in the nature of these games that they are invariably very addictive, and once hooked, it is difficult to revert back to a normal existence.

On the other hand, gambling refers to the practice of putting one’s money on tickets for lotteries that promise a fortune – albeit a very unlikely event. Gambling can, of course, occur in the old fashioned ways, in dedicated casinos or slot machines, or more recently through the internet.

So while both types are addictive, and while both are solitary, antisocial activities, gaming is primarily indulged for the pleasure of pursuing the activity itself, whereas gambling is more often motivated by the hope (rather than promise) of financial gain.

It is to be noted that, according to a recent survey by the Malta Gambling Authority, (Times of Malta, December 14), Maltese residents spend €128 million annually on gambling. In addition, there is increased evidence of illegal gambling, the extent of which is difficult to assess.

Gaming shops are increasingly popular in Malta: in 2017, over half a million people (mostly under 35 years of age) visited the 52 approved gaming shops in Malta.

Younger people often prefer internet gambling to the classical casinos, but there is evidence that gaming parlours are gaining in popularity among the young generations.

There is a whole raft of problems associated with these addictions, which become a ‘vice’, as we say in Maltese.

The Malta Gamblers Anonymous Association has highlighted several adverse issues that can result from gambling:

Financial: it is a statistical fact that when it is a case of machine vs gambler, the gambler always loses, but one tends to hear only the stories of wins – losers do not like to brag. The result is financial difficulties, less money to spend on home needs, rising debts and an increasing need for borrowing.

The horrendous effects of gambling have been amply illustrated by the experience of several countries overseas

In desperate situations one may have to resort to criminal activity to feed one’s habit.

The effect on health is not negligible: the lifestyle of the compulsive gambler is not ideal, involving long sedentary periods, lack of exercise, lack of sleep and outdoor life in general, and often poor appetite and an inadequate diet which is all that gamblers can afford.

Mental health often deteriorates, mani­­festing as depression, anxiety and even, in extreme cases, suicidal tendencies.

It is also an unfortunate fact that one addiction can lead to an increased risk of other behaviour problems, including alcoholism and drug addictions.

Social issues, including degeneration in family relations, is more likely, often resulting in  breakdown in communication with one’s spouse, children and other fa­mily members. This could result from financial problems, depression and even domestic violence. Loss of friends leads to a more isolated existence, which in turn increases time spent gambling and gaming.

The horrendous effects of gambling have been amply illustrated by the experience of several countries overseas. ‘Gambling disorder’, as it is now officially called, has become categorised under the ‘Addictions and Related Disorders’ category, partly to emphasise the fact that it is a mental disorder. It can affect both sexes and may occur in people of any age, but those particularly at risk are men, young adults, people on low-incomes and who are unmarried.

It is also a fact that in spite of regulatory procedures, illicit activity is still quite strong, as shown, for instance, by recent reports that Malta-based gambling firms have been made to pay millions by the UK Gambling Commission for breaches of anti-money laundering rules (Times of Malta, December 1).

The same accusation was made by Italian journalists some months ago, resulting in the withdrawal of gaming licences from some Maltese companies by the Malta Gaming Authority.

The question has been asked already: “Why are so many online casinos licensed in Malta”? It is hard to understand why in Malta the gaming industry is being touted as a desirable economic investment, with almost complete disregard for the ethical downside and problems created for the individual.

In view of all these issues, one is tempted to agree with the now old-fashioned concept that gaming and gambling are potentially fraught and should not be encouraged as a desirable social practice. Economic gain, by individual entrepreneurs or the country as a whole, should never be allowed to trump moral principles.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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