"Alarming" number of gambling addicts raises questions over liberal gaming laws

There are around 130 casinos in the Czech Republic. Alongside them, there are hundreds more arcades known as herna - gaming - bars. In fact, there are over 50,000 slot machines in the country. That equals roughly one machine per 200 Czechs, over twice the number per capita as in Germany. Adding lotteries and other forms of gambling, Czechs bet a whopping 90 billion crowns last year (over 4 billion USD).

"The situation in the Czech Republic is unique in world terms. Not one government since 1989 has approved any kind of plan or position on the gambling industry. On the contrary, privatisation of the industry has led to greater competition, which has led in turn to more outlets. The amount of money that Czechs gamble has multiplied several times."

says Senator Josef Novotny of the European Democrats. He submitted a bill last month aimed at tightening the law on lotteries and gaming, and bringing Czech legislation more in line with European Union norms. It failed.

Another campaigner against the Czech Republic's gambling habit is psychiatrist Dr Karel Nespor. He treats various kinds of addictions at the country's biggest mental hospital Bohnice, located in a bleak north Prague suburb. Dr Nespor has seen a large increase in gambling addiction in recent years.

"During ten years of my practice before 1989 I saw just one pathological gambler, who combined gambling with alcohol abuse. But after 1989 the situation changed and we have many patients now and the situation is getting worse."

How harmful to Czech society do you think gambling addiction is?

"Terribly. Terribly. You can imagine what can happen when the manager of a large firm becomes a pathological gambler. You can imagine when a judge or a police officer becomes a pathological gambler. You can imagine what happens if a teenager goes into some club to gamble, instead of going to school. He will have no qualification and will be a burden on society, not a contributing member.

One of Dr Nespor's patients, a pleasant, quiet-seeming young man named Pavel, was still a teenager - but legal - when he first entered a casino.

"I was 18 years and one hour old. As soon as I turned 18 I went to a casino. At the start I just wanted to see what it was like...That first time it went well. But after that things went downhill."

And go downhill it certainly did. Pavel has been at Bohnice for three months; he checked himself in after six years of crippling addiction.

"It led to my parents not trusting me, my friends all abandoned me - only my mother has stuck by me. I came here for treatment myself after again losing my whole pay packet. My girlfriend said she would stand by me, but when I came here she broke off our relationship completely."

One reason that the Czech authorities tolerate such a high number of gambling establishments is the income they bring. Fees and a percentage of profits go directly to the state in the case of casinos and to local municipalities in the case of hernas.

This money then goes towards "publicly beneficial purposes" and is far from insubstantial - in 2005, over 2 billion crowns was used in this way. That's around 100 million USD.

In fact, when Josef Novotny's proposed bill was before the Senate, some schools and sports clubs complained they would lose out if it became law.

Bohnice mental hospital
Campaigners against the Czech Republic's liberal gambling regulations would counter that the social cost of gambling should also be taken into account.

"These people are not able to pay their debts. They use the money of their employers for gambling. It is also possible, not quite typical, but we have also met violent crimes because of gambling. I must say that one very disturbing phenomenon is homosexual prostitution because of gambling in teenage boys."

says Dr Nespor. His patient Pavel told me the average Czech salary can be gambled away in mere minutes in a casino. It is not surprising perhaps that he too, like many addicts, became involved in crime.

"I've seen a lot of young people around me who would do anything to find the money. They committed crimes, some of them even sold their bodies. I myself lied and...I didn't steal but I did commit crimes. I took loans from banks illegally - it was fraud, or what's called tunnelling."

Despite the crime - including suspected money laundering - associated with gambling, the few moves there have been to limit and more closely regulate herna bars and casinos have come to little.

Senator Josef Novotny blames this on alleged ties between some politicians and big players in the gambling business. But he believes the problem is so serious change will simply have to come.

"Since our mild amendment to the lotteries and gaming law was rejected in December we have been preparing a far stricter bill. Civic Democrat senators have indicated to me that they won't be able to reject it next time round. Because the public are starting to realise it's a serious problem. It affects 100,000 pathological gamblers - and their families. It's alarming - and we simply have to do something about it."

Dr Karel Nespor is also positive about the future.

"If you believe in evolution, that things developed from worse to better, there must be evolution in this field. And I hope that the gambling industry will die like the dinosaurs."