Newspaper article International New York Times

Fears Grow in Italy over Gambling's Toll ; Deregulation Has Created Largest Market in Europe, and, Critics Say, Addiction

Newspaper article International New York Times

Fears Grow in Italy over Gambling's Toll ; Deregulation Has Created Largest Market in Europe, and, Critics Say, Addiction

Article excerpt

Italy has become the largest gambling market in Europe. Now, some Italians say they have had enough.

Renowned for its universities and a celebrated Renaissance monastery, this Lombardy town a short drive south of Milan has in recent years earned another, more dubious, distinction: the gambling capital of Italy.

Slot machines and video lottery terminals, known as V.L.T.'s, can be found in coffee bars, tobacco shops, gas stations, mom-and-pop shops and shopping malls, not to mention 13 dedicated gambling halls. By some counts, there is one slot machine or V.L.T. for every 104 of the 68,300 residents in Pavia.

Critics blame the concentration of the machines for an increase in chronic gambling -- and debt, bankruptcies, depression, domestic violence and broken homes -- recorded by social service workers in Pavia.

But in many ways, Pavia is merely the most extreme example of the spread of gambling throughout Italy since lawmakers significantly relaxed regulation of the gambling industry a decade ago.

In that time, Italy has become the largest gambling market in Europe, and the fourth largest in the world after the United States, Japan and Macau, according to Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, which tracks gambling.

Now, some Italians, in Pavia and elsewhere, say they have had enough. In October, Lombardy became the sixth region to pass legislation intended to curb gambling and help addicts. Dozens of municipalities have also drafted measures to limit gambling, such as reducing opening hours.

The explosion of gambling "is devastating the territory," said Simone Feder, a psychologist who founded a "no slot" protest movement in Pavia that aims to ban the machines from public spaces. "It is an anti-economy that impoverishes because it doesn't spread money around, it just gobbles it up."

With the economy still weak, spending on gambling, like other consumer spending, shrank this year for the first time, but it was still projected to reach about $115 billion for 2013. On average, one in every eight dollars spent by an Italian family goes toward gambling, four times more than 15 years ago, said Maurizio Fiasco, a sociologist at a national commission that combats usury.

Residents of the province of Pavia, situated in a wealthy region, spend about $4,120 a year on gambling, more than double the national average of about $1,650, according to a report issued in December by Agimeg, the gambling news agency.

Many blame the sheer availability of the machines for the rising trend.

"There's no longer a distinction between gambling and life," Mr. Fiasco said. "There is no separate space for gambling -- it is everywhere."

The new attempts to rein in the machines have put myriad municipal and regional governments, which deal more directly with the social costs of gambling addiction, on a collision course with the national government, which has come to depend on gambling revenue, to the tune of about $11 billion last year.

"The government gets the profits, the territory gets the problems," said Angelo Ciocca, a regional lawmaker in Lombardy who supported the recent legislation to curb the industry.

In December, lawmakers in a body that can rarely agree on anything joined to pass a measure in the Senate that curtailed funds to regions and municipalities that enacted anti-gambling measures. The step provoked outrage, with Prime Minister Enrico Letta calling it "an error," and the measure was revoked when the bill passed to the lower house.

"The dealers feel protected by the government. They know the government has their back," Mr. Ciocca said of the buyers of state gambling concessions. "Interests are high."

In 2001, gambling revenue in Italy -- the total amount bet minus the players' winnings -- amounted to $5. …

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