Italy is to press on with plans to open 1,000 new gambling arcades despite mounting national anguish over the spread of pathological gambling in what until recently was a nation of frugal savers. Silvio Berlusconi's last government authorised the new video-poker saloons in 2011. A contest to decide who should get the licences will be held by February.
The non-party government of Mario Monti made a last-ditch bid to suspend the competition by another six months. But a clause inserted in the 2013 budget was thrown out in committee as lawmakers raced to clear the way for the dissolution of parliament on December 22.
Under pressure to boost state revenues and pay off Italy's huge public debts, successive governments have relaxed the country's once-strict gambling laws. The first significant change was in 1994 when scratch-card lotteries were legalised.
But it was not until the mid-2000s that gambling mania really seized Italy. By 2010, according to figures compiled by Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, Italy's per capita spending on betting was the fifth highest in the world, excluding countries such as Monaco, where gambling is a central part of the economy.
Simone Feder, a psychologist and adviser to the juvenile court in Milan, also works with a Roman Catholic church-run refuge in Pavia that caters to, among others, addicts of all kinds. He remembers 2004 as "the year the punters began knocking at the door".
Among those staying at the refuge is Caterina Rossini (not her real name). The wife of a Turin shopkeeper, Rossini describes how she has been reduced to penury by her husband's gambling.
"At the start, he went to casinos and played the lottery. But about 10 years ago, he switched to scratch cards. I'd say things like, 'This month, we don't seem to have as much cash as I thought.' But I had no idea how much he was spending," she says. By the time she found out, his losses were €60,000 (HK$610,000). They had to sell their house to meet his debts.
Feder says that, despite the rise in cases of pathological gambling, "it is still not recognised [by the authorities] as an addiction". Sufferers can not, as a result, be treated in the national health system. Because of that, there is no reliable estimate of the number of addicts. An NGO, Associazione Libera, has put the figure at 800,000.
Earlier this month, officials in predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol reported that the number of compulsive gamblers who had sought help in the province had risen by 76 per cent in 12 months. The figure was released as the authorities there announced a ban on slot machines within 300 metres of "sensitive locations" such as schools, youth clubs, retirement homes and hospitals.
A spokesman for the gambling industry's representative body says it was preparing to challenge the order, describing it as "a way of fuelling illegal gaming". The industry is, however, co-operating with new measures introduced by the government in Rome which will require gambling machines to carry "health warnings" and an indication of the odds against winning.
According to the latest estimates, the total amount gambled in Italy dipped slightly this year as the recession and tax increases ordered by the Monti government have bitten into household budgets. But until 2011, the industry appeared to be immune to the effects of the euro-zone crisis.
On the contrary, says Feder, there is evidence to suggest that many Italians have reacted to a downturn in their disposable incomes by turning to gambling.
The same conviction is held by a lot of young people. In June, Feder carried out a survey of almost 2,000 secondary school students in Pavia. Teenagers, of average age 15, were asked why people gambled.
By far the most common response, given by 57 per cent of interviewees, was "to get rich". "In fact, of course, it is always the 'bank' that wins," he says.
Guardian News & Media