Friday 23 August 2019

Malta, do we have a gambling problem?

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

I was not that surprised to read the news that gambling has become such a major problem on the island that people are now even betting their car keys and losing their cars in the process.

Gambling and betting opportunities are everywhere you look. You cannot even watch a sports event these days without being bombarded by flashes of images urging you to bet. Gambling companies have become the main sponsors for sports, which I find as potentially harmful as when tobacco companies used to be the main sponsors. The TV commercials have become more clever, using humour to draw you in, so that you don’t realize what it is you are actually being encouraged to do. With just the click of a button, it has never been easier to place bets.  The traditional lotto booths have been joined by betting shops in every town and village. The extent of unregulated illegal gambling (fuq l-idejn as it is known), is unquantifiable.  

According to the report carried by TVM, a helpline operated by the Foundation for Responsible Gaming has seen a surge in people asking for help for themselves or their relatives since the service started being offered 24/7. While it was pointed out that it is possible to take part in a little gambling as a recreational activity without any repercussions, the Foundation acknowledges that the risk of dependency is real. When a person exceeds their financial limit and cannot stop then it becomes a problem. This is true of anything which becomes an addiction. The person with an eating disorder who finds themselves gorging on piles of fast food in the car in order to hide how much they are eating. The social drinker who turns into someone who has to have a drink before they can function in the morning. The “recreational drug” user who finds he has to escape to the bathroom to do a line of coke at a family wedding. The woman who starts out as indulging in a bit of retail therapy but ends up a shopaholic, hiding mounds of brand new clothes in her closet still with their price tags attached, which she never wears.

While being a shopaholic might sound relatively mild in comparison, the underlying principle remains the same. In fact, according to consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind: “The instant we decide to buy, we feel good and there’s a rush of positive emotion. But afterwards, similar to a drug addict or alcoholic, intense feelings of guilt after indulging can make it difficult to rebound. We need more. We have to have more. We need the high again. We have to go back for more.”

The loss of control is a downward spiral where the person finds themselves unable to put a stop to the addictive behaviour because it becomes an obsession; a compulsion which they are usually ashamed of and which they must hide from those close around them. All substance abuse addictions are not only self-destructive but can emotionally destroy those around you, as they helplessly watch you waste away consumed by drink or drugs. The devastation caused to the family was perfectly captured in the book “Beautiful Boy:A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” (which has been turned into a feature film). In it David Scheff describes how his son Nik’s addiction to crystal meth almost ruined the family as a result of the constant lying, the stealing, the promises to seek help, the many relapses.

However, when it comes to gambling, this addiction takes its toll in other ways. Those who gamble away everything they own are taking down their whole family with them, who are also hit by the financial loss as the stakes get higher and not only cars, but even houses have been known to be used as bets. Where one part of a couple has racked up enormous debts, the spouse finds that they are liable for them as well, unless there has been a separation of assets. The gambler does not care if there is no money for groceries or enough to buy school supplies for their children.  They cannot see past the next opportunity to gamble, convinced they will win it all back. Once they win, they need to keep playing to win some more. It’s a black hole and a vicious cycle.

Another similarity which all types of addicts have in common is that they become pathological liars.  The lies slip easily and swiftly off the tongue, so much so that it becomes virtually impossible to know if they are telling the truth – or even if they are capable of it.  The erosion of trust is another factor which is soul-destroying for all those who are involved with addicts because it feels like one has built a life on nothing but quicksand,  and the line between reality and the fake, surreal world the addict has created in his own mind is impossible to decipher. The worst possible combination, of course, is when one person has multiple addictions: such as gambling, combined with alcoholism and drug abuse, as one addiction feeds off the other.   This, in turn, is compounded by feelings of rage when the gambler loses money or when the alcohol or drugs run out, which then leads to violent behaviour, creating yet another problem.  It is not a coincidence that addicts are prone to a number of related addictions because studies have shown that addictive personalities gravitate towards behaviour which provides them with a constant ‘high’.  It can be the chemically-induced high of substance abuse or the adrenaline rush of winning at a casino table or a sports betting shop. The restless nervous energy in constant pursuit to replicate this same high is like a trigger which they find impossible to ignore.

While there are no exact statistics on the extent of the problem, the fact that the helpline 1777 is now open 24/7 is an indication that it is a considerable one.  Many factors can contribute to a gambling addiction. According to the American Addition Centers Resource, these include a desperation for money, the desire to experience thrills and highs, the social status associated with being a successful gambler, and the entertaining atmosphere of the mainstream gambling scene.

The paradox, of course, is that we are continuously promoting the fact that the iGaming industry is one of the strongest sectors in the country, bringing in considerable tax revenue and providing some of the most well-paid jobs on the island, which in turn inject cash into the economy.

The gaming possibilities with online gambling include casinos, sports betting, P2P games, lotteries, DFS and poker networks.  Even if all those connected to the gaming industry see it purely as another job and do not themselves dabble in trying their luck, the fact is that the betting and gambling culture has permeated our consciousness so subliminally that it has made it more socially acceptable. But that is the thing with addictions – they always start off as things which we think we can handle precisely because they are part of the social scene, where ‘everyone is doing it’.

It is when the warning signs that something is very wrong start cropping up like red flags, that a family member must take the decision that they cannot be ignored any more and professional help must be sought.  


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