Between 2004 and 2013, the number of slot machines in Romania quadrupled to 62,000, according to figures from the European Gaming and Amusement Federation.
In 2014, the state reaped 147 million euros from the issuing of gambling licences and permits, says the National Office for Gambling, ONJN, the state body that oversees the gambling industry. Some 87 per cent of that came from operators of the rapid-fire slot machines that the poor and addicted favour. The state’s earnings rose to 266 million euros in 2015.
Some experts warn the figures speak to a growing addiction in the European Union’s second poorest nation, and to a paucity of regulation mirrored across the Balkans, where cash-strapped states see gambling as a harmless but valuable source of income.
A 2016 survey commissioned by two major gambling organisations in Romania – Romslot and Romanian Bookmakers – estimated the number of what the industry calls ‘problem gamblers’ at roughly 98,000 people, in a population of just under 20 million.
Hriscu, however, said the number of addicts was almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands, while Sorin Constantinescu, the head of the Casino Association in Romania, told BIRN: “Gambling addiction has grown worse in the last few years. We as organisers have seen more and more addicts than before.”
Constantinescu said gambling operators had recognised the need “to make people aware that they should consider gambling a way to have fun, not a way to ruin your family”.
“It’s normal that we want to make money, but we don’t want to make money at any cost or to destroy people,” he said. “Gambling is mathematics. The money returns to us in the end but we try to use methods that are okay, that are as fair as possible to the people and not to push them into addiction.”
But critics are not convinced.
The law approved in May 2015 calls for the creation of a ‘public interest foundation’, on the board of which would sit Romania’s main gambling associations and which would be in charge of programmes designed to prevent and treat gambling addiction.
It also foresees a fund, run by the ONJN, for the prevention of addiction. Each gambling company would have to contribute 1,000 euros per year, rising to 5,000 euros for online operators and the National Lottery, in an industry that some experts estimate has revenues of one billion euros per year.
To date, neither the foundation nor the fund exists.
If they are created, both the ONJN and at least one major operator have indicated they will draw on the experience of the industry’s own anti-addiction programme called Responsible Gaming, the only such programme in the country, run by two psychologists – Leliana Parvulescu and Steliana Rizeanu.
Parvulescu’s ‘human behaviour’ consultancy, Zivac, lists among its clients the gambling company Game World, owned by Bucharest-based Game City SRL, and the gambling association Romanian Bookmakers.
Parvulescu told BIRN that her consultancy work for Game World, focused on “communication and personal development”, ended before she joined Responsible Gaming in 2012 and that her involvement with Romanian Bookmakers is restricted to her anti-addiction counselling.
She said she saw no issue of conflict of interest.
“The industry wants in its gambling halls as many players as possible who have fun. We, the psychologists of the Responsible Gaming programme, have the same interest, namely to have as many gamblers as possible who have fun, just like in cinemas or theatres.”
Like Parvulescu, 57-year-old Rizeanu also had a stake in the industry whose addicts she is now tasked with treating.
According to the Romanian Trade Registry, Rizeanu and her husband, Radu, opened a company in 1994 called Rino Trading, registered as dealing in gambling and betting. Its address was the same as the psychology clinic Aquamarin that Rizeanu runs and where the industry’s Responsible Gaming programme directs addicts.
Rizeanu told BIRN that Rino Trading ceased activities in 2009, the year before she was hired to head Responsible Gaming. The company is still listed in the Romanian Trade Registry, but appears to be dormant.
Rizeanu, too, insisted there was no conflict of interest.
“First of all because the Responsible Gaming programme is sponsored by the industry operators. Why? Because they don’t need addicted gamblers. An addict is first of all a person who doesn’t have money, a gambler who creates problems in the gambling venue, for the staff and also for customers, like a drunk in a luxury restaurant.”
Romslot, an association of gambling operators and major stakeholder in Responsible Gaming, said it was unaware Rizeanu had previously run a gambling company but said it should not be considered an issue “as long as she does her job within the programme”.
“Honestly we haven’t searched for this in the background of Steliana Rizeanu,” Romslot executive director Violeta Radoi told BIRN. “We’ve looked at her professional experience. She is a trainer of trainers. She is a university professor, she has written books.”