January 25, 2017

Romanian Roulette (1)

Hunched under an umbrella, Dan steps through the drizzle of a cold Bucharest afternoon in April.

He is on the cusp of turning 40 and has a few grey hairs to prove it.

Otherwise, Dan’s lean body bears no trace of an addiction that began 20 years earlier. His eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses are not bloodshot; his arms are not punctured or bruised by needles.

He heads for a gambling hall in a non-descript district of the capital not far from where he works, convinced he has lost almost everything.

“People believe that all humans are fit to survive,” said Dan, a pseudonym to protect his identity. “But nature is not like that.”

Gambling venues have become ubiquitous across Romania since the first big betting hall opened its doors in Bucharest’s central train station in the spring of 1990, just months after Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist rule ended in popular revolt and a Christmas Day firing squad.

Trying to get a grip on their proliferation, the Romanian parliament in May 2015 approved a law on gambling that included, among other things, measures designed to tackle the scourge of addiction.

But an investigation for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence casts doubt on the readiness of the Romanian authorities and the gambling industry to confront the issue.

The law hands responsibility for tackling addiction to the very gambling operators that profit from it, while the psychologists hired by the industry to help the likes of Dan have had business interests in gambling. To date, no progress has been made in implementing the anti-addiction measures.

“Public health has been subordinated to the interests of private companies,” said Eugen Hriscu, a psychiatrist and founder of the non-governmental organisation Aliat that deals with various forms of addiction.

“Addicts don’t really exist for the Romanian state,” he said. “Right now we have chaos, in which the only winners are the dealers.”

Legal confusion

Nestor, of Romania’s ONJN, said the delay in creating the anti-addiction foundation and fund was due to confusion over the relationship between the two.

Doru Gheorghiu, the executive director of Romanian Bookmakers, one of the associations that finances Responsible Gaming, also said the law did not clearly define how the foundation would be set up.

Even then, Gheorghiu said, “What I can guarantee you is that in 90 per cent of the cases, the person doesn’t face a concrete gambling addiction. The person has other problems.”

BIRN emailed the Romanian Ministry of Health, the National Institute for Public Health and the National Centre for Mental Health and Fight Against Drugs to ask whether they had been consulted on how to proceed in the fight against gambling addiction.

All three said they had not been consulted, nor did they have any programmes for the prevention or treatment of gambling addiction.

Hriscu of the Aliat NGO said the state’s inaction was dangerous.

“I’ve talked to young people in small Romanian towns and these gambling venues have become their meeting places, the community centres,” he said.

It was still drizzling when Dan stepped inside the gambling hall, taking a seat in front of the electronic roulette. No dealer; no betting chips; only a screen in front of him.

Dan had relapsed and was no longer living with his wife and child. He had moved back in with his parents and was gambling at night, just like in his youth. He discovered a new generation of addicts, young men who work in supermarkets or drive taxis by day and gamble away their earnings by night.

In June, he shared a video on his Facebook profile of the Swiss long-distance runner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, her legs buckling as she staggered and swayed to the finish line of the marathon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, a symbol of human endurance.

“This is the life of an addict,” he told BIRN. “The ones who manage to survive, they do it with great suffering,” he said. “At every step, every second, there is pain and suffering.”

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