Rich or poor?
Natasha Dow Schull, a cultural anthropologist at New York University and author of the book Addiction by Design, said the gambling industry in general had invested great effort creating the “myth” that most people can “gamble for fun and it doesn’t hurt us at all, almost like we have some kind of physical immunity to it. And then there is this group that has problems.”
Studies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, however, suggest people with gambling problems account for at least 40-50 per cent of the industry’s revenues, raising obvious questions over its interest in helping them stop.
According to a 2012 survey commissioned by gambling operators and published online in Romanian, the average Romanian slot machine user had a monthly net income of 290 euros. The average net salary in Romania that year was 342 euros.
Rizeanu, however, described the typical Romanian gambler as wealthy.
“Gambling halls and casinos are mostly visited by people with a lot of money, who can gamble large amounts,” she said. “Companies don’t need taxi drivers who spend all their money and then the wife comes crying.”
According to an inquiry by the Australian government in 2010, the risk of becoming addicted increases with the proximity of gambling venues.
The experts at Responsible Gaming, however, also disputed this. “In our case it’s different,” said Parvulescu. “If he [a Romanian] wants to go, he’ll go. If he doesn’t want to go, he won’t.”
Asked which experts it consulted on the issue of gambling addiction, the ONJN said it cooperated with Responsible Gaming.But still, it did not consider addiction to be a pressing issue.
“If you know there is such a problem, you should tell me the numbers. We, as an institution, have no competence or any statistics that could inform us about such a number,” Odeta Nestor, the head of the ONJN, told BIRN at her Bucharest office, where a copy of a local gambling industry magazine featured a picture of her on its cover.
Before joining the office when it was founded in 2013, Nestor, 40, worked as financial director at a number of casinos in Romania.
“The media is all over (gambling-related) suicides,” she said, “but just think how many people commit suicide because of love or bank loans.”
Romania is not alone in Europe in handing responsibility for anti-addiction programmes to the gambling operators. But critics warn that the danger is greater in Romania’s case, where regulation is loose and the state has failed to consult or recruit independent, expert voices not beholden to the operators.
Hriscu of the Aliat addiction NGO said: “The level of regulation is very low. From the lack of regulation, the ones who always win are the dealers.”
Cristian Pascu, a founding member of the Romanian Gaming Association of Organisers and Producers, conceded “there is a little conflict of interest here.”
Nevertheless, he said: “The education can come from us because we know the industry’s secrets. Educate the consumer to understand the fun element, that you come here to spend time and not as a source of money. Gamble responsibly. But it’s not in the nature of the Romanian gambler.”
Slot machines, he said, make gamblers “a little masochistic. Pleasure, pain, pleasure, pain, the alternation of defeat and victory that leads to the secretion of dopamine, serotonin.”
Free food, drinks
The situation is Romania is replicated to a degree across Eastern Europe, where the major Western gambling operators saw a new growth market with the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. Regulation has been playing catch-up ever since.
In Romania, just a few months separated the execution of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, and the opening of the first big gambling hall in Bucharest’s Gara de Nord railway station, operated by a subsidiary of Austrian gambling giant Novomatic in partnership with the Romanian football club Rapid.
It featured 80 wood-encased slot machines.
“Hordes of people would wait in line outside the gambling hall, pushing the doors so I would open them faster,” said Pascu, who started there as an engineer and rose to become co-owner. “That’s how much they lusted after poker after the revolution.”
It was in the mid-1990s that Dan began gambling, as a 20-year old student with little money. He says he went to casinos with friends for the free food and drinks they offered to lure customers.
“Giving drinks and food for free was apparently a loss for casinos, but in reality it was an investment in future generations of addicts,” said Dan. During Eastern Europe’s cutthroat transition to capitalism in the 1990s, “casinos were there to sell hope,” he said.
The ONJN now estimates that Romania has 70,000 slot machines.
Experts say their addictive potential comes from the speed with which winnings are paid out.
Such machines were banned in Norway in 2007, where gambling is state-run.
“The number of calls to the helpline dropped to below 50 per cent of the traffic before the removal,” Rune Timberlid, Senior Adviser of The Norwegian Gaming Authority, told BIRN.
“Casinos were there to sell hope”
–gambling addict Dan on the growth of gambling in post-Ceausescu Romania.
Finland, where, like Norway, gambling is also nationalised, channels much of the revenues back into social causes, including treatment for addicts.
Though effectively bankrolled by the industry, as in Romania, Finnish anti-addiction officials are fierce in their role as advocates for addicts.
Mari Pajula, head of Peluuri, the Finnish equivalent of Responsible Gaming, said her organisation tried to maintain a healthy distance from the gambling industry itself.
“We criticise how the gaming companies market their products. We criticise the distribution policy, the fact that there are slot machines in every store,” Pajula told BIRN in Helsinki, speaking in English.
“This is good about the Finnish system - even though Peluuri is financed by the industry we can criticise.”
Corinne Bjorkenheim, who manages the Gambling Clinic in Helsinki, an umbrella programme for addiction treatment, said: “Ideally there should be a clear cut between the industry and the treatment programmes.”