‘Convenience gambling’ at root of addiction, not IRs, says scholar

Bo J. Bernhard

Problem gambling is not necessarily more prevalent in gaming meccas like Macau and Las Vegas, a professor on responsible gambling said on Tuesday, but it is often worse in jurisdictions that permit wide and frequent access to gambling.

Speaking on the sidelines of Sands China’s annual Responsible Gaming Team Training Program at The Venetian Macao, Professor Bo J. Bernhard, executive director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute, said that “convenience gambling” is associated with higher social costs than gaming in integrated resorts (IRs).

“Not all gambling is created equal when it comes to problem gambling,” said Bernhard. “Integrated resorts that are tourist-focused have shown to bring [relatively] reduced social costs, compared to widespread local convenience gambling, like fruit machines in the UK or pokies in Australia. […] Convenience gambling in every neighborhood [in some parts of the world] creates more problems. Take Japan and its Pachinko parlors for example. Lots of machines, but no tourism and no job creation.”

In Bernhard’s opinion, the incidence of problem gambling is connected to exposure to gaming, both in terms of length of time and frequency.

“The nice thing about these integrated resorts is that they bring in tourism and huge economic benefits. And typically, the people who visit these casinos visit less frequently than people who visit the pub for a fruit machine fix,” he said.

The argument is opportune for integrated resort operators who stand on the brink of entering the eagerly-anticipated Japanese market. Opponents of Japan’s integrated resort bill have long argued that large-scale casinos will lead to more gambling addiction in a country where as many as 900,000 people may already be hooked on Pachinko.

Frequency of exposure as a determinant of gambling addiction may also partly explain the higher rate of problem gambling seen in frontline gaming workers compared with the rest of the population. The phenomenon is seen the world over, but is particularly noticeable in Macau.

“There is definitely research that suggests that casino employees have slightly higher rates of problem gambling,” admitted Bernhard. “But it is worth mentioning that typically for the overall population [the rate] is 0.9 percent and for casino employees it might be 1.5 percent. So it is an elevated risk, but that doesn’t mean a crisis.”

Macau-based gaming scholar Davis Fong concurs that exposure to gaming heightens the risk of developing an addiction.

At the graduation ceremony of the responsible gambling program on Tuesday, the newly appointed lawmakerFong said that a major concern for the government was the sheer scale of the number of frontline gaming workers in Macau. He estimated that there are about 100,000 gaming employees in the MSAR, “or about one-quarter of the working age population,” though official statistics put this number somewhere between 80,000 and 85,000.

Even with a 1.5 percent risk, tens of hundreds of workers could be exposed to the socio-economic dangers of a gambling addiction, he warned, adding that, in his opinion, the risk to frontline workers is on the rise.

A government proposal to ban all off-duty, frontline casino workers from entering any casino in the territory is about to complete its 30-day public consultation period, before being considered by the Legislative Assembly early next year. The proposal seeks to emulate restrictions already in place for civil servants of the MSAR.

Under the terms of the proposed ban, frontline casino staff will only be allowed to gamble for several days around the Chinese Lunar New Year, and those that violate the restriction may be fined up to MOP10,000.

Gaming workers’ associations have shown a mixed response to the proposal.

A survey conducted by the Macau Gaming Industry Frontline Workers showed that 77 percent of the 3,044 interviewed casino workers supported the revision. But the deputy director of Macau Forefront Gaming said that the proposal was “insane” and that it “treats [workers] as if they were gaming addicts, gambling groups or even chip thieves.”

For Bernhard, the proposal is worthy of some commendation as a strategy to reduce exposure to those at most risk of developing a gambling problem.

However, the gaming expert admitted that he was not aware of the technical details of the plan or whether its drafters had motives other than solely to prevent problem gambling.

Although based in Las Vegas, Bernard is a regular instructor at the  Sands China Responsible Gaming Team Training course, which has now completed its fifth consecutive year. The program, is intended to enhance employee knowledge of problem gaming.

Frontline gaming workers Pierre Lai and Shadow Lou, who this week graduated from the program, said that it had helped to build their confidence in identifying and confronting problem gamblers.

Their mentor, Romeu Júlio do Espírito Santo, said that the training course involved role- play exercises to reinforce the course material.

“There is a role-play [exercise] that accounts for one-quarter of the training. This helps to give the students practical experience and make the training more memorable,” he said. “After the training, the students will be well-equipped to handle these situations.”

Lai and Lou, who both hold the position of pit manager, told the Times that they had not personally encountered any colleagues who showed signs of a gambling addiction.

However, Professor Bernhard warned that some frontline workers were likely to be affected by problem gambling and it would be more challenging for gaming workers to confront their colleagues than to intervene with a patron of the casino. “It is always going to be a more emotionally-charged conversation with colleagues,” he said.

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