Take shackles off legal gambling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 4:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 4:12am

Legal gambling in Hong Kong is conducted under a social contract which makes it palatable to many who believe it is a social evil. The government has granted the Jockey Club a highly regulated monopoly over betting on horses, the Mark Six lottery and, more recently, soccer, in return for heavy taxes that make it the biggest source of support for the city's charities. The restrictive monopoly reflects the power of the anti-gambling lobby in government circles, as evidenced also by successful resistance to the introduction of soccer betting until 11 years ago.

Arguably, however, it is a bad deal for the community and it just keeps getting worse. Jockey Club experts say a study of sports betting patterns since soccer betting began suggests that last year the huge illegal sports betting market reached HK$500 billion in turnover, which is untaxed and almost four times what the club's betting operations turned over in the same period. The city's charities are the biggest losers.

The reason, according to Jockey Club director of trading Patrick Jay, is simple - illegal bookmakers offer many more horse races and football matches, plus many other sports, a bigger array of different types of bets and they offer credit. "It's a no-brainer for the customer," he said.

Given that gambling is an irrepressible vice, the authorities must strive for a social outcome that delivers the greatest good and the least disadvantage. That cannot be said of a legal sports betting regime that pays its taxes but is unable to compete with illegal rivals with links to organised crime. The multibillion-dollar boost illegal bookmakers expect from the World Cup tournament has prompted calls for a rethink of the city's strategy to combat black-market betting. Jay rightly calls for a coordinated government and societal response in which tougher law enforcement is just one part. Well-meaning restrictions on the Jockey Club's highly regarded operations are self-defeating in the battle against the evils of gambling. It should not have to fight with one hand tied behind its back.