Macau at odds over responsible gambling

Macau's attempts to rein in problem gambling within its casinos may be a slow move in the right direction, but sceptics wouldn't bet on it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 5:23am

Questions have been raised over the effectiveness of a policy to reduce the number of problem gamblers in Macau, with a former gambling addict and an academic calling it unhelpful and superficial.

But the head of a gambling study institute says the policy is a step in the right direction, although progress is slow.

And casinos, while claiming to be trying to help, point out that it does not make sense for them to tell people not to gamble as it is the business they are in.

Casinos are now required to set up a specialist team to help potential problem gamblers, in line with responsible-gambling guidelines issued by the Macau Gaming Inspection and Co-ordination Bureau late last year.

They must also display pamphlets about counselling centres and have help kiosks in the gaming rooms.

As part of the government's responsible-gambling policies, casinos are also required by law to bar under-21s from entering the place or working for them, and to impose a partial smoking ban.

Responsible gambling has been mentioned in the Macau chief executive's policy address every year since 2007 and was emphasised by the Beijing government late last year.

In a city that earned six times as much as Las Vegas last year, nearly 3 per cent of residents between 15 and 64 years old - about 13,000 people - are estimated to have a gambling problem.

About 10 million mainlanders also cross the border to try their luck every year.

Melina Leong Sio-mok, vice-president of public relations and community affairs at the Venetian Macao, said it had been training its 24,000 staff on responsible gambling. At least one employee, known as an ambassador, would be on site during every shift to help people in need.

"We won't act as a counsellor … as this may have an adverse effect," Leong said. "If our ambassadors notice that a gambler seems to be having problems, they will take a friendly approach and ask if the person needs help or give him some information [about counselling]."

If our ambassadors notice that a gambler seems to be having problems, they will take a friendly approach and ask if the person needs help or give him some information

She said staff would also encourage such people to leave the tables if they were seen betting for too long, but did not say how long that would be.

A former problem gambler dismissed such efforts, saying these measures would not have helped her kick the habit.

"I think the ambassadors won't approach too many gamblers as it would be annoying," said the 48-year-old, who has steered clear of the temptation for six months.

"I didn't even know that I was addicted to gambling and would not think about seeking help. If I had money, I just wanted to gain back the money I'd lost." The pamphlets might be of use only when gamblers came to their senses after they had bet away all their money, she said.

Dr Hao Zhidong, sociology professor at the University of Macau, also questioned whether casino staff would intervene actively if they saw problem gamblers.

"The policy [of responsible gambling] is still new … Casinos are trying to follow the instructions," he said. "But this is only the beginning and deals with only some superficial problems."

Hao also said help kiosks placed in six major casinos late last year were not effective.

Six kiosks have been set up to date, mainly to help people assess if they are addicted to gambling and to give details about counselling help.

In a visit to the Venetian and other casinos, the South China Morning Post saw that pamphlets about counselling centres could be seen on display or obtained on request. The kiosks were placed in quiet areas. Of 10 people interviewed in the casinos, none had noticed the kiosks, and eight believed such efforts were not useful in helping gambling addicts.

Davis Fong Ka-chio, director of Macau's Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming, said that although the progress of relevant policies was slow, the authorities were moving in the right direction generally.

He also said gamblers, too, had a role to play in responsible gambling. "Many gamblers are too passive, especially people in a Chinese society," Fong said. "If they simply hide themselves away and refuse to seek counselling, we cannot help them."

He also said it might be good to put the kiosks, which were still in the pilot stage, in quiet areas, so gamblers would not worry about being seen using them.

Leong, of the Venetian, said the company was dedicated to fulfilling its corporate social responsibility, but it was not logical to ask people to stay away as gambling was its core business.

"As a gaming operator, I think it is very conflicting and unconvincing if I ask people not to come to gamble," she said, adding that the business could not over-disguise its true nature.

Leong said the US-owned Venetian was ahead of most gambling companies in implementing responsible gambling in Macau and had contributed more than 6 million patacas to help groups and research on problem gambling in the past six years.

Wicky Tang Weng-kei, a certified gambling counsellor in Macau, said research had found a problem gambler could affect up to 17 people around him or her.