Cape Town - South Africa’s biggest cause of problem gambling is the national lottery, says a former gambler, who equates it to a gateway drug.
Professor Peter Collins, executive director of the National Responsible Gambling Programme, said that about 1 percent of the population had developed a gambling problem - a figure similar to that in North America, Europe and Australia, but lower than in parts of the Far East.
But the figures were much higher for people playing the lottery.
“In 2001, 1.7 percent of the population developed a problem that way, and by 2008 this figure had grown to 3 percent of the adult population. That is much higher than in other parts of the world,” Collins said.
He said another alarming statistic exposed by the 2008 research was the influence of illegal gambling.
“Up to a third of all problem gamblers gamble illegally at places like shebeens or on the internet, where even under-age gambling becomes a problem. And those are the people we are not reaching. That is where criminals find a foothold.”
A reformed problem gambler said the Lotto was like a soft drug that could draw addicts into harder forms of the “sport”.
“I have lived through this hell myself and I tell you it is not getting better. The public does not see what is going on. It is taking a lot of people’s lives down. From losing everything to suicide, it is crushing people and their immediate families.
“I went wild to get money to continue gambling, from legal borrowing to illegal borrowing, pawning, theft. The pawn shops in Goodwood are doing a thriving business. These days pubs with slot machines cover their overheads not with the booze they sell, but with the slot machines.”
The 40-year-old said his addiction developed when he was a teenager.
“It started innocently enough - you put a bit of money on a horse and you watch it run. It is quite cool, you win some money, the girls like you, it is fun. Once in Standard 8 I won a few thousand rand and it felt like I was living the life… But then it gripped me.”
He married and had a family, but could not keep his life under control.
“I was in financial disarray. For 15 years I tried to stop. I started doing it in secret and that is a sure sign you have a problem. My wife - we are divorced now - twice tried to commit suicide. It got very messy. I can just thank God I did not get involved with loan sharks.”
He warned that the borderline or illegal underbelly of the industry was inundated with underworld figures.
“I tried to stop. I was in rehab twice. But, unlike other addictions, the medical aid people do not pay for this. And you are never sure where a person’s rock bottom is. Some hit rock bottom when their families leave them, others when they lose their possessions. Some never hit rock bottom and they die.”
Collins appealed to problem gamblers or their families to contact the National Responsible Gambling Programme at 080 000 6008 for free and anonymous professional help.
Sershan Naidoo, spokesman for the National Lotteries Board, said playing the lottery was a form of gambling. “With the lottery you are taking a chance that you will win. However there is nothing to suggest that there is a problem (with problem gamblers).
“It is a small percentage of people.”