PROFESSIONAL drivers are the most prone to gambling addiction because of their solitary shifts and ability to hide their earnings and whereabouts from their families. A senior police gambling counsellor says the problem has become so acute that taxi, mini-bus and truck drivers have set up a self-help group. Speaking at a seminar called 'Working with Addicted Gamblers' at the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Criminology yesterday, Edward Kwan Wood-kai, a senior police inspector and certified gambling counsellor, said the occupation was closely related with gambling problems. He said it was difficult for drivers' families to keep tabs on their whereabouts and impose control over their budgets. 'Drivers work shifts and the irregular working hours make it hard for families to figure out where they are and what they are doing with their spare money,' he said. There was also peer pressure. Drivers often gathered together when they were off duty, he said. But the profession had finally accepted there was a problem within its ranks and set up the group where gamblers could gather to share their experiences. He described it as the equivalent of Gamblers' Anonymous in the United States. 'Sharing sessions are very useful. It makes them realise that they are not alone and there are people who are more in debt than they are, and thus they feel more hopeful,' Mr Kwan said. Gambling within the police force is also a problem. Mr Kwan said sharing was especially useful in the force because junior officers might come to realise that even high-ranking officers had gambling problems and this would make them feel better about their own difficulties. 'Staggered repayments are another way to help addicted gamblers, who need to go through the process of settling the debts,' he said. 'They need to buy the time by paying interest to recover from the illness. Lump-sum payments offered by the family may only make the matter worse.' But Mr Kwan said it was more difficult for policemen to get help as many dared not reveal their gambling habits for fear of being dismissed from the force. 'The police policy is meant to be preventive and aims to warn our colleagues not to be addicted to gambling, but it also scares away those already addicted from seeking treatment,' he said. He urged the Government to educate the public about the hazards of gambling in order to change perceptions of the vice. 'Gambling is part of the Hong Kong culture, with horse racing on every Wednesday and Saturday and the Mark Six. It is part of our life. 'Going to Macau for a gambling trip is just a normal form of entertainment and nobody seems to be aware of the danger of getting addicted.' Mr Kwan said easy access to betting centres and the many gambling facilities available had added to the gambling culture. He is also worried that the popularity of the Internet and encouragement from the Jockey Club for on-line gambling will make the problem even worse. 'Gambling can be compulsive and addictive and it can be just as hazardous as smoking' in that people find themselves hooked on it. Mr Kwan said it was important to raise public awareness about the differences between leisure and addictive gambling.