By M. A. Sumanthiran –
It was with great relief that I noted that the Government had decided to put on hold the decision to approve regulations governing gazette notifications for the establishment of casinos in Colombo. Amidst protest by key government allies SLMC and JVP and opposition party UNP, the powers that be had little choice but to re-think an act that could well turn out to be a disaster for our society and economy.
However, there is no guarantee that this decision will not be brought up again as soon as the heat subsides, as has been the case with other government proposals that have not been received well at the outset and have been passed later with little resistance from us! The casino circus could continue!
As such I would like to assess this issue further. Gambling, as a form of entertainment, can be described simply as playing a game to make a quick buck. To some perhaps the fun is in the game itself. However, to others it is in the risk of gain or loss that comes with one ‘pitch or toss’! To yet others it is in the ‘quick buck’ that can be won so easily – the fact that the chances of losing that ‘quick buck’ are as high is dismissed as negligible! For addiction blinds you to risk, to harm, and before you know it you are caught in its trap. And so the wise man in the Book of Proverbs of the Holy Bible warns us that ‘wealth gained hastily will dwindle…” Here is an indication that money habitually gained without effort, without work may not last.
Make no mistake gambling can become addictive and as such gambling along with smoking and drinking is denounced by most religions as a form of social evil. Some would consider this intolerant. Yet, most people no matter their religion would consider any of the above harmful when indulged in to an extreme.
Not many will attempt to justify chain smoking, drunkenness and protracted gambling, except in that the individual should be free to make their own choice. And yet, leaving cigarettes and alcohol aside, it is noteworthy that research indicates an increase in gambling addiction in areas close to gaming zones.
For example, a 2010 report by Ohio based research firm Community Research Partners (CRP) states that,
“The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC 1999) estimates that 1.2%
of U.S. adults are lifetime pathological gamblers and 1.5% are lifetime problem gamblers.
The literature shows a connection between casinos and increased rates of compulsive gambling
problems. Reith et al (2006) cite a variety of research (NORC 1999, Welte et al 2004, Emerson
and Laundegran 1996, Volberg 1995) to show that the location of a casino within 50 miles of an
individual’s home is associated with approximately double the likelihood of problem gambling.
Based on this, opening a casino could potentially double the existing prevalence and social
impacts of problem gambling in a community.”
Thus availability it seems influences or perhaps even impedes freedom of choice! For no one surely, chooses to become addicted to anything that will result in harm. And that gambling is harmful is undeniable. This same CRP report further states that,
“the NORC study found that the subpopulations of pathological and problem gamblers are more likely
than other gamblers or non‐gamblers to have been on welfare, to have declared bankruptcy, to have
been arrested or incarcerated, and to have received mental health care.”
In fact it is in acknowledging this harm that Singapore, after having under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, resisted casinos for decades, allowed the building of two state of the art gambling resorts, but has since tightened its control of these same resorts due to the increase in problem gambling and related social issues. Amendments to the Casino Regulatory Act has ensured a high casino entry levy for citizens and permanent residents, a monthly limit on casino visits and bans from entering casinos at the request of family members.
There is no doubt then that Gambling can be harmful and that controlling its ill effects will be no easy thing. We must not then hasten into approving an Act that though allowing for a few hours of pleasure to those who may not become addicted, can and will result in increasing social, family and financial issues for others with less resistance to its attractiveness.
The justification for casinos across the world is its supposed economic benefits. That casino resorts will bring an increase in employment and revenue is definite. In fact a January 2013 Reuters report on the tough new rules for Singapore’s casinos indicates that casinos are “still generating healthy profits despite the new enforcements”.
However, that this revenue is so high that it outweighs the social impacts is questionable. In this same article an education professional is quoted thus: “Casinos did bring more jobs, more visibility for Singapore, more economic benefits. Yet it’s also undeniably true that the undercurrents behind these benefits are there too – broken families and ruined lives and the increased social costs that come with it.”
In such a context what should be the response of the government? Matt Doeden in his book ‘Legalized Gambling: Revenue Boom or Social Bust?’ identifies four positions a government may take:
Sri Lanka right now maintains a mixed approach i.e., Tolerance (casinos operate freely with no regulations and only a small levy) and Operation (National Lotteries Board etc). Singapore has chosen Regulation after years of Prohibition.
Sri Lanka has just emerged from a thirty year civil war that has resulted in massive social crises not only in the North East but all over the island. We are still recovering from years of racism, violence, destruction and death. Reconciliation is or should be our priority. In addition law and order has become an urgent issue within our corrupt and hostile system.
Should we risk further social upheaval at a time when we are struggling to recover from our damaged past? Whom should the law protect? Should it protect the freedom of the majority to make their own choices or should it protect the vulnerable minority in our increasingly fragile community?
Should gambling be prohibited or legalized and regulated if the economic benefits outweigh the social harm? These are questions to be considered seriously in the government induced pause on the casino circus. At least, if nothing else, let us not be silent and watch as yet another foreign party plunders our land with tax free benefits to set up exorbitant casino resorts for the benefit of the rich and not so famous!
*The author, M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate