Bos/Hrv/SrpRomânăБългарскиShqipМакедонскиελληνικά 20 Nov 16

Romanian Roulette

Neglect, ignorance and industry influence raise doubts about a Romanian pledge to fight the hidden scourge of gambling addiction.

Diana Mesesan Bucharest, Buzias, Helsinki
Illustration by Alexandra Gavrila

Hunched under an umbrella, Dan steps through the drizzle of a cold Bucharest afternoon in April.

He is on the cusp of turning 40 and has a few grey hairs to prove it.

Otherwise, Dan’s lean body bears no trace of an addiction that began 20 years earlier. His eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses are not bloodshot; his arms are not punctured or bruised by needles.

He heads for a gambling hall in a non-descript district of the capital not far from where he works, convinced he has lost almost everything.

“People believe that all humans are fit to survive,” said Dan, a pseudonym to protect his identity. “But nature is not like that.”

Gambling venues have become ubiquitous across Romania since the first big betting hall opened its doors in Bucharest’s central train station in the spring of 1990, just months after Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist rule ended in popular revolt and a Christmas Day firing squad.

Trying to get a grip on their proliferation, the Romanian parliament in May 2015 approved a law on gambling that included, among other things, measures designed to tackle the scourge of addiction.

But an investigation for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence casts doubt on the readiness of the Romanian authorities and the gambling industry to confront the issue.

The law hands responsibility for tackling addiction to the very gambling operators that profit from it, while the psychologists hired by the industry to help the likes of Dan have had business interests in gambling. To date, no progress has been made in implementing the anti-addiction measures.

“Public health has been subordinated to the interests of private companies,” said Eugen Hriscu, a psychiatrist and founder of the non-governmental organisation Aliat that deals with various forms of addiction.

“Addicts don’t really exist for the Romanian state,” he said. “Right now we have chaos, in which the only winners are the dealers.”

...

Insiders

Between 2004 and 2013, the number of slot machines in Romania quadrupled to 62,000, according to figures from the European Gaming and Amusement Federation.

In 2014, the state reaped 147 million euros from the issuing of gambling licences and permits, says the National Office for Gambling, ONJN, the state body that oversees the gambling industry. Some 87 per cent of that came from operators of the rapid-fire slot machines that the poor and addicted favour. The state’s earnings rose to 266 million euros in 2015.

Some experts warn the figures speak to a growing addiction in the European Union’s second poorest nation, and to a paucity of regulation mirrored across the Balkans, where cash-strapped states see gambling as a harmless but valuable source of income.

A 2016 survey commissioned by two major gambling organisations in Romania – Romslot and Romanian Bookmakers – estimated the number of what the industry calls ‘problem gamblers’ at roughly 98,000 people, in a population of just under 20 million.

Hriscu, however, said the number of addicts was almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands, while Sorin Constantinescu, the head of the Casino Association in Romania, told BIRN: “Gambling addiction has grown worse in the last few years. We as organisers have seen more and more addicts than before.”

Constantinescu said gambling operators had recognised the need “to make people aware that they should consider gambling a way to have fun, not a way to ruin your family”.

“It’s normal that we want to make money, but we don’t want to make money at any cost or to destroy people,” he said. “Gambling is mathematics. The money returns to us in the end but we try to use methods that are okay, that are as fair as possible to the people and not to push them into addiction.”

But critics are not convinced.

The law approved in May 2015 calls for the creation of a ‘public interest foundation’, on the board of which would sit Romania’s main gambling associations and which would be in charge of programmes designed to prevent and treat gambling addiction.

It also foresees a fund, run by the ONJN, for the prevention of addiction. Each gambling company would have to contribute 1,000 euros per year, rising to 5,000 euros for online operators and the National Lottery, in an industry that some experts estimate has revenues of one billion euros per year.

To date, neither the foundation nor the fund exists.

If they are created, both the ONJN and at least one major operator have indicated they will draw on the experience of the industry’s own anti-addiction programme called Responsible Gaming, the only such programme in the country, run by two psychologists – Leliana Parvulescu and Steliana Rizeanu.

Parvulescu’s ‘human behaviour’ consultancy, Zivac, lists among its clients the gambling company Game World, owned by Bucharest-based Game City SRL, and the gambling association Romanian Bookmakers.

Parvulescu told BIRN that her consultancy work for Game World, focused on “communication and personal development”, ended before she joined Responsible Gaming in 2012 and that her involvement with Romanian Bookmakers is restricted to her anti-addiction counselling.

She said she saw no issue of conflict of interest.

“The industry wants in its gambling halls as many players as possible who have fun. We, the psychologists of the Responsible Gaming programme, have the same interest, namely to have as many gamblers as possible who have fun, just like in cinemas or theatres.”

Like Parvulescu, 57-year-old Rizeanu also had a stake in the industry whose addicts she is now tasked with treating.

According to the Romanian Trade Registry, Rizeanu and her husband, Radu, opened a company in 1994 called Rino Trading, registered as dealing in gambling and betting. Its address was the same as the psychology clinic Aquamarin that Rizeanu runs and where the industry’s Responsible Gaming programme directs addicts.

Rizeanu told BIRN that Rino Trading ceased activities in 2009, the year before she was hired to head Responsible Gaming. The company is still listed in the Romanian Trade Registry, but appears to be dormant.

Rizeanu, too, insisted there was no conflict of interest.

“First of all because the Responsible Gaming programme is sponsored by the industry operators. Why? Because they don’t need addicted gamblers. An addict is first of all a person who doesn’t have money, a gambler who creates problems in the gambling venue, for the staff and also for customers, like a drunk in a luxury restaurant.”

Romslot, an association of gambling operators and major stakeholder in Responsible Gaming, said it was unaware Rizeanu had previously run a gambling company but said it should not be considered an issue “as long as she does her job within the programme”.

“Honestly we haven’t searched for this in the background of Steliana Rizeanu,” Romslot executive director Violeta Radoi told BIRN. “We’ve looked at her professional experience. She is a trainer of trainers. She is a university professor, she has written books.”

‘Misspent Youth’

A group of young people in jeans and T-shirts gathered to play sport in the grounds of a building under the summer sun. They could have passed for students, were it not for the bars on the windows.

“The longest I’ve stayed away from the [slot] machines is the seven months I’ve spent in prison,” said an 18-year-old from Bucharest called Alexandru.

Like many of his fellow young offenders at the Buzias youth detention centre in western Romania, Alexandru was addicted to gambling. He began at the age of 15, skipping school and doing casual jobs. When there was no work, he stole to fund his addiction.

BIRN was granted access to the centre by the National Prison Administration and interviewed only those young offenders who had turned 18 and agreed to talk.

Romania’s state gambling authority, the ONJN, and industry operators frequently stress the importance of keeping minors away from gambling.

The law prohibits gambling to those under 18. Operators have the right to ask customers for proof of age, but those in Buzias said the rules were easily dodged.

Gambling operators in Romania do not require customers to register, so access is generally not card-controlled as in some other European countries.

In interviews with BIRN, the young offenders said they gained access because (a) ‘we knew the employees’, (b) ‘the employees were nice and let us in’, (c) ‘they asked for IDs but didn’t look at them’, (d) ‘we went with older people’ and (e) ‘they told us to hide in the toilets if the police came’.

Psychiatrist Eugen Hriscu of the Aliat addiction NGO said many of the gambling addicts he had met began gambling at around 14 or 15 years of age. Many addicts BIRN spoke to said they had started gambling as young teenagers.

Rich or poor?

Natasha Dow Schull, a cultural anthropologist at New York University and author of the book Addiction by Design, said the gambling industry in general had invested great effort creating the “myth” that most people can “gamble for fun and it doesn’t hurt us at all, almost like we have some kind of physical immunity to it. And then there is this group that has problems.”

Studies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, however, suggest people with gambling problems account for at least 40-50 per cent of the industry’s revenues, raising obvious questions over its interest in helping them stop.

According to a 2012 survey commissioned by gambling operators and published online in Romanian, the average Romanian slot machine user had a monthly net income of 290 euros. The average net salary in Romania that year was 342 euros.

Rizeanu, however, described the typical Romanian gambler as wealthy.

“Gambling halls and casinos are mostly visited by people with a lot of money, who can gamble large amounts,” she said. “Companies don’t need taxi drivers who spend all their money and then the wife comes crying.”

According to an inquiry by the Australian government in 2010, the risk of becoming addicted increases with the proximity of gambling venues.

The experts at Responsible Gaming, however, also disputed this. “In our case it’s different,” said Parvulescu. “If he [a Romanian] wants to go, he’ll go. If he doesn’t want to go, he won’t.”

Asked which experts it consulted on the issue of gambling addiction, the ONJN said it cooperated with Responsible Gaming.But still, it did not consider addiction to be a pressing issue.

“If you know there is such a problem, you should tell me the numbers. We, as an institution, have no competence or any statistics that could inform us about such a number,” Odeta Nestor, the head of the ONJN, told BIRN at her Bucharest office, where a copy of a local gambling industry magazine featured a picture of her on its cover.

Before joining the office when it was founded in 2013, Nestor, 40, worked as financial director at a number of casinos in Romania.

“The media is all over (gambling-related) suicides,” she said, “but just think how many people commit suicide because of love or bank loans.”

Romania is not alone in Europe in handing responsibility for anti-addiction programmes to the gambling operators. But critics warn that the danger is greater in Romania’s case, where regulation is loose and the state has failed to consult or recruit independent, expert voices not beholden to the operators.

Hriscu of the Aliat addiction NGO said: “The level of regulation is very low. From the lack of regulation, the ones who always win are the dealers.”

Cristian Pascu, a founding member of the Romanian Gaming Association of Organisers and Producers, conceded “there is a little conflict of interest here.”

Nevertheless, he said: “The education can come from us because we know the industry’s secrets. Educate the consumer to understand the fun element, that you come here to spend time and not as a source of money. Gamble responsibly. But it’s not in the nature of the Romanian gambler.”

Slot machines, he said, make gamblers “a little masochistic. Pleasure, pain, pleasure, pain, the alternation of defeat and victory that leads to the secretion of dopamine, serotonin.”

Illustration by Alexandra Gavrila

Free food, drinks

The situation is Romania is replicated to a degree across Eastern Europe, where the major Western gambling operators saw a new growth market with the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. Regulation has been playing catch-up ever since.

In Romania, just a few months separated the execution of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, and the opening of the first big gambling hall in Bucharest’s Gara de Nord railway station, operated by a subsidiary of Austrian gambling giant Novomatic in partnership with the Romanian football club Rapid.

It featured 80 wood-encased slot machines.

“Hordes of people would wait in line outside the gambling hall, pushing the doors so I would open them faster,” said Pascu, who started there as an engineer and rose to become co-owner. “That’s how much they lusted after poker after the revolution.”

It was in the mid-1990s that Dan began gambling, as a 20-year old student with little money. He says he went to casinos with friends for the free food and drinks they offered to lure customers.

“Giving drinks and food for free was apparently a loss for casinos, but in reality it was an investment in future generations of addicts,” said Dan. During Eastern Europe’s cutthroat transition to capitalism in the 1990s, “casinos were there to sell hope,” he said.

The ONJN now estimates that Romania has 70,000 slot machines.

Experts say their addictive potential comes from the speed with which winnings are paid out.

Such machines were banned in Norway in 2007, where gambling is state-run.

“The number of calls to the helpline dropped to below 50 per cent of the traffic before the removal,” Rune Timberlid, Senior Adviser of The Norwegian Gaming Authority, told BIRN.

“Casinos were there to sell hope”

–gambling addict Dan on the growth of gambling in post-Ceausescu Romania.

Finland, where, like Norway, gambling is also nationalised, channels much of the revenues back into social causes, including treatment for addicts.

Though effectively bankrolled by the industry, as in Romania, Finnish anti-addiction officials are fierce in their role as advocates for addicts.

Mari Pajula, head of Peluuri, the Finnish equivalent of Responsible Gaming, said her organisation tried to maintain a healthy distance from the gambling industry itself.

“We criticise how the gaming companies market their products. We criticise the distribution policy, the fact that there are slot machines in every store,” Pajula told BIRN in Helsinki, speaking in English.

“This is good about the Finnish system - even though Peluuri is financed by the industry we can criticise.”

Corinne Bjorkenheim, who manages the Gambling Clinic in Helsinki, an umbrella programme for addiction treatment, said: “Ideally there should be a clear cut between the industry and the treatment programmes.”

Fair Game

In 2013, Goldsmiths, University of London, produced a report entitled Fair Game: Producing Gambling Research.

Based on research in the UK, Europe, Australia, North America, Hong Kong and Macau, its key findings were:

* The idea of ‘problem gambling’ is politically useful. It focuses attention on individual gamblers, rather than relationships between the industry, the state, products and policies

* Gambling research is heavily dependent on industry support

* Funding programmes prioritise banal questions: researchers are not free to devise critical alternatives unless they wish to remain unfunded

* There is a lack of transparency about the influence of industry on research and no professional code of conduct governing these relationships

* The industry has the most accurate and informative data but rarely shares this with researchers

Legal confusion

Nestor, of Romania’s ONJN, said the delay in creating the anti-addiction foundation and fund was due to confusion over the relationship between the two.

Doru Gheorghiu, the executive director of Romanian Bookmakers, one of the associations that finances Responsible Gaming, also said the law did not clearly define how the foundation would be set up.

Even then, Gheorghiu said, “What I can guarantee you is that in 90 per cent of the cases, the person doesn’t face a concrete gambling addiction. The person has other problems.”

BIRN emailed the Romanian Ministry of Health, the National Institute for Public Health and the National Centre for Mental Health and Fight Against Drugs to ask whether they had been consulted on how to proceed in the fight against gambling addiction.

 

All three said they had not been consulted, nor did they have any programmes for the prevention or treatment of gambling addiction.

Hriscu of the Aliat NGO said the state’s inaction was dangerous.

“I’ve talked to young people in small Romanian towns and these gambling venues have become their meeting places, the community centres,” he said.

Illustration by Alexandra Gavrila

It was still drizzling when Dan stepped inside the gambling hall, taking a seat in front of the electronic roulette. No dealer; no betting chips; only a screen in front of him.

Dan had relapsed and was no longer living with his wife and child. He had moved back in with his parents and was gambling at night, just like in his youth. He discovered a new generation of addicts, young men who work in supermarkets or drive taxis by day and gamble away their earnings by night.

In June, he shared a video on his Facebook profile of the Swiss long-distance runner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, her legs buckling as she staggered and swayed to the finish line of the marathon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, a symbol of human endurance.

“This is the life of an addict,” he told BIRN. “The ones who manage to survive, they do it with great suffering,” he said. “At every step, every second, there is pain and suffering.”

Diana Mesesan is a Bucharest-based feature writer. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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