- Czech Republic may have as many as 110,000 pathological gamblers
- This is double the average number of gamblers per capita in other European countries
- According to recent studies 5 percent of the total population, mostly men, is at risk of developing gambling problems.
- There are about 20 institutions serving 3,000 people
Czech Republic, Prague - They exchanged only a few words as they arrived to the tiny and dank, windowless basement of an office building in the center of Prague. A group of nine people, from emotionally worn teenage boys to expressionless middle-aged men, sat quietly, as they had many times before, around a lone, lit candle in the middle of the room.
"Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?"
"Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?"
"Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?"
These are just a few of the questions designed by the international 12-step programme Gamblers Anonymous to help people assess whether or not they might be a compulsive gambler.
"If you get seven 'yes's,' it means you are clearly addicted," said one man who asked to only to be identified by his first name, Petr. "I answered all 20 'yes'."
As one of the most liberal countries in Europe, the Czech Republic has faced a tide of rising alcoholism, drug use and addictive gambling since the fall of communism in 1989.
Under strict communist rule, such vices were heavily regulated if not outright prohibited.
But, with the transition to democracy, casinos and other betting companies were able to walk into the market unchallenged, while a lack of preventative regulations and low taxes made gambling ventures extremely lucrative.
It's a story of unabated social destruction not dissimilar to other countries in the former communist bloc, where countries such as Hungary have since curtailed the effect of gambling by banning addictive slot machines and limiting access to gambling websites.
The Czech Republic, however, has done little to stop or regulate gambling, and the results are devastating.
According to government data released last month, the country may have as many as 110,000 pathological gamblers [PDF] that account for 1.2 percent of the total population, or nearly double the average number of gamblers per capita in other European Union countries.
By comparison, different studies show Germany reports an estimated 0.29 percent - 0.64 percent of its population are addicted to gambling [PDF] , while the UK peg the figure at 0.70 percent. [PDF]
A gambling problem
Today, casinos, gambling houses called "herna bars" and 24-hour pubs fitted with slot machines are in virtually every neighbourhood of Prague.
The largest betting firms, meanwhile, sponsor major concerts and sporting events, painting the streets, websites, newspapers and television with countless advertisements.
This all means that the scale of gambling addiction in the Czech Republic has risen dramatically.
According to the study by the state's National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction, 5 percent of the total population, mostly men, are now at risk of developing a gambling problem, with the highest risk of developing gambling addictions falling upon teens and young adults aged 15-24 as the market begins to lean more towards online gambling.
"I think [the gambling problem] has several reasons," said Jindrich Voboril, Czech national gambling policy coordinator. "Until recently, nobody cared about it. There were no government programmes - there were no strict regulations. Even taxation was very weak ..."
In fact, there is so little interest in the issue that there was not a single official responsible for monitoring the problem until last summer when it was tacked on to Voboril's other responsibilities, which includes overseeing the country's entire anti-drug and alcoholism prevention initiative. The Czech Republic is known as having one of the highest rates of alcoholism in Europe.
Voboril, otherwise known as the Czech anti-gambling tsar, said that the problem is twofold. Culturally, Czechs don't see alcoholism or gambling as tenable problems, but rather a way of life in a society that became increasingly individualistic and skeptical following communism.
The other part of the problem is that a powerful gambling industry lobby has been for decades directly linked to officials in previous governments, making it difficult to pass meaningful legislation.
Both factors have had a profound impact on Voboril's ability to do his job. He said he frequently gets e-mails from citizens ridiculing his attempt to bring the issue to light.
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But that is not the worst of it.
"I have had threats. Somebody was telling me that I could lose my position here … because some of the people who put money into those places are in strong connection with current parties in government," Voboril said, adding that he is so insecure about the situation that he refuses to relocate his children to Prague, and rather makes the 200km commute from Brno every day.
"I don't want to move my children to Prague because I don't want to be dependent on this position," he said.
Last year, Prague mayor Adriana Krnacova set in motion a proposal to tackle the issue by partially banning casinos, but the proposal was swiftly subdued.
| Slot machines are a favourite among Czechs who are often given free alcohol to keep playing [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera]
Treatment and therapy
There is much at stake. According to government data, known gambling entities earned 30.4 billion koruna ($1.27bn) in 2015 on 152.2 billion koruna ($6.37bn) in deposits.
Currently, the Czech market allows only for local companies to hold gambling licences, of which there are 69, while industry leaders estimate that an illicit gambling market in the form of thousands of unregistered gaming machines as well as Czech-language online casinos comprise about 50 percent of the market.
Altogether, the Czech Republic has nearly 70,000 electronic gaming machines nationwide, the highest number of any country in Europe.
After years without any sort of public funding and only about five insufficiently funded preventative treatment clinics, Czechs with addictive personalities such as 60-year-old Frantisek Trantina, were left with no safety net.
"I was in a very deep depression. There were seizures out on my property. I didn't know what was happening around me. It reached the point where I thought, 'What's the point' and I contemplated killing myself," he said of his years of gambling, which lasted for eight years starting in 2004.
During that time, he supported his habit by working as a marketing manager for a sports betting firm in Prague. It was not until he had lost the equivalent of 10 million koruna, or nearly $420,000, that he decided to seek help.
"It took me a lot of time at the clinic to get back, and even now the debts are not settled," he said, adding that he would borrow excessively from banks, instant cash lenders and even loan sharks he referred to as "dangerous".
"They are the ones I paid back first."
Today, Trantina has become the face of preventative care for problem gamblers, speaking at seminars and running the only Gamblers Anonymous group in the country, while he studies to become a psychotherapist at state-run Charles University. Needless to say, he no longer works in the gambling sector.
"When I go to gambling conferences I see the people I used to work with, but now I'm on the other side," he said. He is one of dozens of students at the school who have taken up interest in the area of preventative care.
Now, there are only about 20 institutions in the Czech Republic serving 3,000 people - potentially less than 3 percent of total addicts - while only three or four are considered to be doing so adequately, according to the report released last month.
According to Voboril, this year, the government appropriated its first ever funding to deal with the problem with 30 million koruna, or $1.25m, that was given to an NGO to open the country's first dedicated clinic.
Jan Richter, CEO of Sananim, the NGO that opened the clinic, said that the programme, which offers both therapy and free legal counsel, has already picked up about 40 clients in just two months since it opened. and is planning to expand outreach in the near term.
Of those clients, he said that most are facing debts of 400,000 (about $16,800) koruna or more. "It's probably more. Most of them could never ever pay it back," he said.
Most of the debt incurred by his clients are from under regulated formal channels that often charge interest in excess of 20 percent.
Milan Spurne is one of his clients with such debt. The 26-year-old commutes nearly three hours a day twice a week to visit the Prague-based clinic. Milan, who is from a small town called Drozdov, said he began betting on sports as a teenager with several other friends before setting in on a four-year-long binge that cost him $60,000.
"Of the 650 people in my village, I know of about 20 who gamble excessively," he said.
It was not until his father stepped in after receiving massive bills in the mail that Milan sought help. "I am much happier not playing any more. I am running and playing football instead of betting on it," he said.
'They are thieves'
Of the field of companies with betting licences, sports bookies are the most visible, with betting shops all over the country. Vaclav Sochor, head of communications at Tipsport, one of the largest such firms in the country, argued that the gambling problem lay more within actual casinos and electronic machine gambling than sports betting.
"There is a profound difference between betting on sports results and throwing money into slot machines," he said, adding that the firm regularly promotes responsible betting, while teaching the dangers of it in the schools.
"Tipsport does not run any slot machines or quizomats or similar sort of technical devices and we are leaders in promoting responsible betting. It is not just altruism; it is about our business."
Not everybody sees it that way, though.
"I started with only sports betting. I saw the slot machines as something different and I thought to myself that I would never do that," said Spurne. "I did see it as different, but now I see it for what it really is. They are thieves."
Source: Al Jazeera News