Efforts needed to tackle underage gambling

Soccer pin-up star Michael Owens does not think he has a problem because he has lost a reported GBP40,000 ($584,000) gambling on horse-racing over the past couple of years. Since the Liverpool and England striker earns GBP70,000 a week it is hard to argue with him.

It is the anti-gambling lobby and youth welfare activists who have a problem with Owens' betting. He is usually seen as a clean-living role model for young people wherever soccer has a following, including Hong Kong. They fear that his admission of his expensive hobby and his refusal to change his ways will send the wrong message about the dangers of gambling.

The rise of gambling among teenagers and even younger people makes this concern understandable. US experts cite mounting anecdotal evidence and research into underage betting, which they attribute to growing cultural acceptance of gambling and easier accessibility on the internet. In Britain, the government plans legislation later this year to require gambling internet sites to make sure users are old enough to bet. This follows an experiment in which a 16-year-old girl was able to get onto 30 out of 37 British-based gambling sites.

As we report today, Hong Kong has reason to share this concern. A survey commissioned by one of the city's gambling treatment centres indicates that parents underestimate the extent of gambling among children.

The survey by Polytechnic University for Tung Wah Group of Hospitals' Even Centre found that nearly 90 per cent of Hong Kong parents surveyed believe their children have never gambled. But only 57 per cent of young people aged 12 to 21 say they have never gambled. Joint research team leader Professor Chung Kin-wah cautions that the survey may even understate the disparity because some young people might have chosen to give a 'socially acceptable' answer. He also pointed out that peer pressure on young people to gamble would grow during the soccer World Cup next month.

Parents may be sensible to heed the Even Centre's advice to be alert if their children suddenly have extra money or need to borrow, are familiar with gambling jargon or suffer mood swings. Medical science has come to view addiction generally as not just a social problem but a medical disease. Recent research in the United States links gambling in adolescence to depression and drug and alcohol abuse. A New Zealand study last year of 1,000 18-year-olds found that the personality profiles associated with problem gambling and substance-related addictive disorders were similar.

There are social dividends from gambling through the taxation and money for charity it generates. The social cost of underage gambling and addiction has the potential to undermine these benefits. Efforts to combat such problems are just as important as those to wipe out illegal bookmaking.