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‘Gamblers’ aid must be on hand’

Brett Abarbanel

Measures to help habitual gamblers need to be in place before Bermuda opens its first casino, according to an international gaming expert who is visiting the island.

Brett Abarbanel, head of Social and Recreational Gambling at UCLA, has been speaking with politicians and counsellors about strategies to cope with gaming-related social issues.

And while she believes it might be nearly impossible to eliminate problems related to gaming, mechanisms can be put in place to lessen the blow.

Bermuda is expected to open its first casino within the next few years.

Dr Abarbanel said that in most western cultures around one or two per cent of the population had gaming problems which could potentially impact them, their families and their community.

“One of the biggest things you can do is implement strategies to try and mitigate the harm,” she said. “A big part of it is making sure people know what services are available, they know what problem gambling is so they don’t go down that path thinking it is normalised behaviour, when they in fact might be developing a problem.”

“Problem gaming is known to have various personal, familial and social impacts that are quite negative,” Dr Abarbanel added. “If you are a problem gambler, you typically lose all of your money. It is not uncommon to have legal trouble. We see plenty of cases where people go deep into debt, trying to win back what they lost, and sometimes even resort to crime to fund their problem.

“That’s when you get into the familial cost. When you have someone with any addiction, it’s not an internalised issue. The problem affects others, and the society bears the cost. These issues can and do exist with gambling.

“It’s not the type of thing I would expect to see explode in Bermuda with casino gaming because it does already exist here. There are already problem gamblers in Bermuda, but there are not the recourses to deal with these costs.

“Hopefully those will go into effect with funding generated by the casino taxes.”

She said that the local counsellors who she has spoken with during her trip responded positively, noting that people are already gambling on the island and they seem pleased that efforts are being made to address the matter before casinos open.

“You can tell they appeared relieved to have someone in an industry that can cause problems actually contributing to solving those very problems. I think they are very excited to be a part of this process in creating something that will help them help Bermudians.”

Asked about the specific legislation in Bermuda, she said that some improvements could be made, specifically noting the proposed problem gaming counsel and family exclusion orders, through which people can seek to have family members barred from gaming out of concern for their well being.

“There isn’t any scientific basis for the family exclusion order,” she said. “There is a lot of scientific support that has come in for self-exclusion orders. That’s when you sign yourself up as opposed to someone else signing you up.

“It can be the case that when someone tries to push someone into treatment before they are ready, it pushes back own help-seeking behaviour, to the point where it might go beyond where they might have sought out counselling.”

Dr Abarbanel, meanwhile, suggested that the problem gaming counsel should be made an advisory board for the existing Casino Gaming Commission, which would allow them to have a say without having two bodies separately creating regulations.

Richard Schuetz, executive director of the Casino Gaming Commission, said that it was a top priority to ensure that programmes to deal with problem gaming are in place before the first casino opens to mitigate any potential social issues.

“We want to have the most modern, up to date and science-based programme available. We want to be on the cutting edge,” he said. “There is an ecosystem we are going to try to erect around this so people know there is help available, it’s confidential, it has a proven track record.

“We need to start this before the industry starts. We are trying to not wait until we have a problem and then act on it. We are trying to get in front of it.”