YEREVAN, DECEMBER 15, ARTSAKHPRESS. Stefan (not his real name), now 21, dropped out of school after the 8th grade. He takes up odd jobs, badly paid, mostly in construction, and spends what little he earns on betting. When it comes to feeding his addiction, he is focused and resourceful and won’t stop at anything. “We were planning to start a family, but his pay check is gone in two days,” says Stefan’s ex-girlfriend. “He has never sought help. He refuses to realize that this as a problem and insists that he can deal with it”.
The young man has a family background of compulsive gamblers. He started his chase for easy money under peer pressure, back in his early teens. The obsession with betting has assumed epidemic proportions in Stefan’s native Northwest, the poorest region in the EU.
Matter of Health and Business
This real-life story is one of thousands in Bulgaria. Gallup surveys set the approximate number of gamblers in the 6.5-million-strong country at 3 million. Some 300,000 of them are regulars, even though 86% of the people have never won anything, the Center for the Study of Democracy reported in 2018. Every better spends between BGN 15 and 43 monthly on the habit. Overall, participation in games of chance costs players nearly BGN 500 million a year.
Dr Tsveteslava Galabova, director of the country’s third largest mental hospital, says that the number of such patients is rising exponentially even though an official count of the addicts is not available. Problem gambling is not deadly and requires psychotherapy rather than medication, but it usually leads to a fatal alcohol and drug addiction, the psychiatrist explained.
The World Health Organization classifies “pathological gambling” as a habit and impulse disorder that dominates the patient’s life to the detriment of social, occupational, material, and family values and commitments. Unlike other dependencies, its relief is far more readily available and much easier as it requires almost no logistics.
On the supply side, gambling is a huge industry that aggressively promotes its products. The 2022 FIFA World Cup telecasts, including the public-service Bulgarian National Television, are literally awash in commercial breaks touting online betting. The glitzy prime-time spots feature popular actors and celebrities like football legend Hristo Stoichkov and famous musician and composer Goran Bregovic going out of their way to convince the audience that the good life, visualized by attractive scantily dressed young women and luxury cars, is just several clicks away.
NGOs Sound the Alarm
Direct advertising of gambling aimed at minors is illegal, but such commercials routinely appear on television, radio and the Internet during a daypart when they are freely accessible to teenagers. In the ultimate outrage, children practising sports wear outfits endorsing online betting platforms. The Council for Electronic Media, which is supposed to enforce the restrictions, says its powers are rather limited. The National Revenue Agency keeps a register of persons at risk of compulsive gambling which is intended to block their access to participation in games of chance. Entry into, and removal from, the register is voluntary. The minimum duration of registration is two years. The register, which is not public, went back into operation on December 12, 2022 after a two-year suspension.
In a letter to the President, the caretaker ministers, the parliamentary committees’ chairs and the institutions in charge, the National Network for Children and the Roditeli [Parents] Association insist on urgent action to regulate gambling-promoting media content and amend legislation. “The institutions’ flat refusal to apply even the minimum restrictions provided for in the Gambling Act is bound to turn betting into a real epidemic among adolescents,” the NGOs warn.
They note that problem betting ever more frequently affects schoolchildren and their close ones. Entire families gamble away their homes, and kids are the victims of the ensuing long-drawn and unmanageable domestic crises.
“When gambling turns into the nation’s principal dream, this is a problem which must be addressed despite the profits and revenue generated,” the two organizations argue.
They insist on a ban on any form of advertising for gaming at a time and in a place where the audience probably or admissibly includes persons aged under 21. Harsher penalties should be provided for violating this ban at schools and sports facilities, during sports and cultural events and programmes, and in school notebooks, timetables and other education-related products. The minimum gambling age should be raised to 21. Betting ads should mandatorily feature a warning that gambling is addictive. Penal sanctions for involving minors in gambling should be increased substantially.
Operators Acknowledge the Problem
Games-of-chance operators affiliated to the Bulgarian Gaming Association have developed a project according to which the industry is prepared to stop advertising its products on TV before 6 p.m. as from January 2023. They also promise to accompany each broadcast or billboard ad with calls for responsible betting and that men and women aged under 23 will not appear in the TV spots. The operators will also stop specifying the jackpot and bonus amounts in the advertisements.
The organizers nevertheless believe that such ads are necessary as they keep people away from unlicensed bookmakers.
(This information is published based on the cooperation agreement between ARMENPRESS and BTA).