EDITORIAL | Sunday, 09 December 2007

Vice of the Mediterranean

Gambling madness seems to have taken the country by storm in recent weeks.
The Super 5 lottery, with its scarcely credible jackpot of Lm500,000, seems to be uppermost on people’s minds at present. As the jackpot continues to rise, the punters increase in both numbers and in the amounts they spend on lottery tickets – much to the detriment of their well-earned disposable income.
Paul Newman’s words in the movie The Colour of Money – “a dollar won is twice as sweet as money earned” – is evidently music to the ears of us Maltese. But there is a price to pay for all the cheap thrills.
Malta’s fastest growing industry may be delivering the goods insofar as government revenue is concerned, but is also having a questionable impact on society. Not only is the current Super 5 frenzy negatively affecting the retail business – or so its representatives claim, at any rate – but there are also the many unfortunate social implications the vice of gambling inevitably entails.
This newspaper has mixed feelings about the effect of Super 5’s ever increasing jackpot on businesses, which are now urging government to put a cap on winnings. While agreeing in principle with the argument in favour of an automatic ceiling on prize money, removed only recently by legal notice, it nonetheless seems a bit rich (excuse the pun) for the GRTU – vociferous proponents of the free market economy – to be the ones making this suggestion.
Besides, our misgivings on betting go far beyond the restrictions favoured by certain members of the business community. We maintain our doubts in spite of our recognition of the commitment of the local operating company to the community, which has benefited indirectly through increased lottery duties, corporation taxes, commissions to agents and charitable contributions to good causes. All have helped contribute in no small manner to the general benefit of the local economy.
The point is whether the authorities are turning a blind eye to increasing regulation simply because of the revenues reaped by the state exchequer. Is the State simply looking at gambling from the perspective of additional revenue?
This would certainly explain the drive to attract online gambling companies to set up in Malta. But it is hardly consistent with the otherwise draconian legislation governing the advertising of betting services, especially casinos, which exist in Malta.
At this point, one cannot not comment on the television adverts currently swamping the national station… especially those which portray gambling as something glamorous, trendy, and – at least in one particular advert – an alternative source of revenue for people who can’t afford a car stereo.
Why has the Gaming Authority not clamped down on such advertising, in the same way as it clamped down on other media for carrying direct or indirect advertising of the services offered by licensed casinos? Surely, the playing field should be level for all involved in the gaming industry.
On another level we seem to have allowed gambling to creep into our village cores, too. Sedqa, the government’s agency against drugs, alcohol and other dependencies, has justifiably expressed concern at the mushrooming in our towns and villages of licensed gaming halls… sometimes a stone’s throw away from schools, catechism centres and other places traditionally frequented by youths.
The fact remains that gambling is scientifically proven to have social consequences, and this tilts the balance in favour of increased regulation. Its social effects are clear for all to see. People are betting large chunks of their home budget and in the more serious cases, borrowing money to finance their gambling addiction.
If the State cannot – and in this newspaper’s view, it should not – ban gambling outright, then at the very minimum it ought to ensure that gambling companies, especially when operating under monopolistic conditions, are made aware that they also carry strong social responsibilities towards the community in general.
We would strongly urge the local company responsible for lotteries – to all effects and purposes a monopoly – to increase its already generous contribution to good causes and to also be contributors towards the numerous numbers of local sport and cultural activities. Otherwise people will be justified in writing gambling off as the son of avarice and the father of despair.

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