A Man´s House Is … His Casino

Internet Gambling Ups the Ante — and the Risk of Addiction

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SYDNEY, Australia, APR. 7, 2001 (Zenit.org).- You can bet on it: Online services are multiplying the dangers posed by traditional methods of gambling.

The problems caused by lotteries, poker machines and casinos are well known. Now, however, every household can be transformed into a casino merely by hooking up to the Internet, and many people are falling prey to the temptations offered.

The Australian government is worried by this and is putting forward legislation, now under debate in federal parliament, which would prevent local companies from offering services of this type. The Australian operators are now earning millions of dollars through domestic Internet betting, the Sydney Morning Herald reported March 28.

The government already has a moratorium in place which prevents companies from establishing new online betting operations before May 19. The Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, admitted his plan would not completely stop Australians who wanted to gamble online, but would force them to go to sites overseas.

As an additional protection, Senator Alston said, Internet service providers would be required to offer customers filters which would prevent access to gambling sites. The ban won´t apply to Australian gambling service providers offering such services to people «who are physically located overseas,» Alston added.

Bets of all kinds

The burgeoning popularity of Internet gambling is attracting attention in many countries. The Wall Street Journal reported March 26 on the large number of sites available in Britain that allow wagers on almost every imaginable subject. Gamblers can go to a site and stake their money on which soap-opera queen will marry first. Another site offers bets on music (example: What will be the next No. 1 single?) and even world news (Will the Times of London have a dead member of the royal family on its front page next week?).

Other sites concentrate on sports. Merrill Lynch & Co. reports that annual revenue for sports betting is worth 152.7 billion pounds ($213.5 billion) today. As consumers transfer a greater proportion of their spending online, Merrill estimates, 100 billion pounds in revenue will come from online sports betting by 2015.

Andrew Burnett, vice president of gambling research, estimates online sports betting accounts for around 40% of the 2 billion to 4 billion pounds annual revenue in online gambling today.

The English government is doing everything it can to attract more online gambling sites, in the hope of gaining more tax revenues. According to the Wall Street Journal, in a bid to persuade bookies to return to England, the United Kingdom government recently dropped the betting tax.

In Hong Kong the growing popularity of betting via Internet is reducing the turnover of the bookmakers, reported the New York Times on March 18. More than a million inhabitants of Hong Kong bet regularly on horse racing, and each year they pour nearly $11 billion into the coffers of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

But the explosive growth of online gambling has helped erode the Jockey Club´s revenue by 10% from its peak in 1997. NetValue Ltd., a research firm, estimates that 41% of Internet users in Hong Kong, or 442,590 people, visited at least one online gambling site in December. That compares with 36% the previous month and 22% in October.

The young are vulnerable

The United States is also caught up in this enthusiasm for gambling via Internet. The explosion of sites dedicated to gambling has made wagering much more accessible than it ever was, the Washington Post reported Jan. 28. As a result, more people are prone to getting deep into debt through gambling, and even to becoming gambling addicts.

Young people appear to be especially vulnerable. Today´s adolescents are the first online generation, as comfortable in cyberspace as their parents were in front of the television. Once in college, they are besieged by credit card companies eager to sign them up.

The congressionally chartered National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated there were 6.9 million potential Internet gamblers in 1997 and revenue of about $300 million. One year later, the pool of potential users had grown to 14.5 million and revenue was $651 million.

And it is potentially the worst type of gambling: «From the psychiatric point of view, it´s roughly like drinking alone versus drinking in a bar,» said Sheila Blume, chairwoman of the American Psychiatric Association´s Addicted Patients Committee. «Here´s someone sitting at a computer with the door closed, and the family has no idea what they´re doing,» she said. «At least when you´re in a bar, you´re getting feedback.»

The problem is that many states are too addicted to gambling revenues to pay attention to the afflictions caused by the spread of gambling on the Internet. Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, noted that states took in $25 billion in lotteries alone in 1999, and that in 2000, revenue from legal gambling is likely to reach $60 billion when it´s totaled up. «I believe that many states are very reluctant to look at problem gambling,» Whyte said.

It is estimated that 1 million Americans gamble online each day, the Sunday Times of London reported Feb 4. Five years ago, there were only half a dozen such sites; today there may be more than 1,000, with pop-up advertisements that urge «To win, click here,» or «Being a winner has never been this much fun.»<br>
Many sites are established in offshore havens such as Belize, Antigua, Grenada and Curacao. To the dismay of watchdog groups, some are linked to children´s sites offering free games as an introduction to casino-style gambling sites, which then ask for credit-card details.

Anywhere, anytime

If this seems bad enough, there´s more to come, according to Business Week in its Feb. 14 issue. Across Europe the spread of interactive TV and new mobile phones equipped with wireless application protocol (WAP) will let those so inclined place a bet anytime, from anywhere. Eventually, I-TV and WAP technologies «are going to be interesting platforms» for betting worldwide, predicts Mark Finnie, gambling analyst at Deutsche Bank´s British branch.

Gaming companies are lining up to try to grab their share of the virtual pie, which some estimate will grow from $1 billion in worldwide revenues in 1999 to $12 billion by 2004. While e-gambling accounts for only 10% of global gaming revenues, excluding lotteries, it´s still the fastest-growing segment of the industry, says Marc Falcone, a gaming analyst at Bear Stearns.

Business Week reported that Ericsson and e-commerce-application service provider Netalone are offering mobile-gambling services in Sweden and plan to expand into China, where betting on horse racing is one of the few legal forms of gambling. France´s Pronostix offers betting with WAP-enabled and Palm devices. Swedish company ATG, in partnership with Ericsson, offers mobile-Internet betting for horse racing across the Continent.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2413, notes that wagering in itself is permissible. It is not morally acceptable, however, if the money used on gambling deprives someone of what is necessary for basic needs, or what others may need. Moreover, «The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement.»

The rapid spread of online betting poses a potential problem for many individuals and families. It can only be hoped that the lure of tax revenues does not blind governments to the need for regulation of this sector.

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