FLORENCE, Italy—Even as Italy’s economy slumps in recession, its gambling industry stays strong.
The toll of gambling on mental health has received greater attention following the July 4 suicide of a teen on the Italian island of Ischia who had gambled away his family’s savings.
The region of Lombardy has the most per capita spending on slot machines; 40 Lombardy mayors took a stand against gambling last week, calling for limits on the industry, in spite of the short-term economic benefits.
The gambling industry employs more than 120,000, making it the third largest employer in Italy. The top two employers are Eni, an Italian multinational oil and gas company, and Italian automaker Fiat.
According to data from the National Coordination of Gamblers’ Groups, 14 percent of gambling machines installed between 2011 and 2012 were shadowed by negative social effects. The Lombardy mayors prepared a series of guidelines last year, culminating in last week’s legislative proposal.
Angela Fioroni, spokeswoman for the local Lombardy governing body and author of the book The Rules of the Game, explained the current situation and the mayors’ proposal: “Right now this sector is not regulated. … [It is permitted] to install machines anywhere—bars, restaurants, we’ve had reports of some also in pharmacies.”
She said the mayors call for a moratorium on new machines until new regulations are in place. They want to limit the areas in which gambling machines are permitted. Some mental health advocates call for a ban on the machines near schools, hospitals, and other locations considered sensitive.
Senzaslot.it is an online portal created for Italians to share information about cafes and other public places they can go without hearing the sounds of slot machines. Maurizio Vanetti, a spokesman for Senzaslot.it, said: “We consider the proposal interesting, but with some weaknesses. … The point that we consider most dangerous is that tax revenue on the game could be redirected at the local level.”
The proposal would give local authorities greater power to regulate gambling—not only to decide where machines will go, but also to control the revenue.
“We believe this could trigger a short circuit in which community politicians may believe that gambling is a possible source of revenue rather than a problem—socially expensive—to resolve,” he said.
The Italian federal government has taken some action to regulate gambling. In 2003, it brought gambling under the wing of the Autonomous Administration of State Monopolies (Amministrazione Autonoma dei Monopoli di Stato, AAMS). In January of this year, Health Minister Renato Balduzzi banned online gambling promotion. Italy’s health ministry now recognizes gambling addiction as a disease.
Fioroni rattled off the stats: “We have 400,000 machines in Italy, 5 million regular players of whom 3 million are at a pathological risk, and about 800,000 already considered pathological, costing the [health ministry] at least 5 billion a year.”
“Yet mayors have no decision-making power over the opening of game rooms and the location of the machines,” she added.
AAMS reports about 87 billion euros ($115 billion) funneled into the national gambling industry in 2012, on which the government collected about 10 percent tax. According to ISTAT, the official Italian statistics service, Italians spend 5 percent of their income per capita on gambling—about 775 euro ($1,020) a year per person. Italy is the first European country to measure gambling per capita.
“The classic story of the player [with a gambling problem],” Vanetti said, “is that of someone who is not able to realize the problem alone.”
“He can not think of anything but how to recover the money he lost, and then he enters into a cycle in which he goes to work to [earn money] for playing. He stops only when there is a wall in front that forces him to stop—for example, a spouse who files for divorce. Otherwise, he’ll go to petty crimes or commit suicide,” Vanetti said.
In addition to the 113,000 public places with at least one machine, there are about 2,400 so-called mini-casinos. Slot machines account for half of all gambling in the nation, lotteries for a quarter, and the majority is done online.
Regulating the sector is a first step, but the gambling problem requires a cultural approach, say experts, since smartphones allow people to gamble online anywhere.
Fioroni said those most at risk for gambling addiction include single women, people without stable employment, immigrants, and people with less education.
Vanetti said: “It is both a cultural problem and a legislative and an economic one. We have to deal with everyone, not just the players defined pathological, but also [the people who play only occasionally]. The latter ones could slip into a pathological condition. We must keep in mind that machines have been designed to manipulate the human mind using certain physiological characteristics, through sounds and colors.”