Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Facing up to a gambling problem

Taiwan loves gambling, but it's illegal. As more casinos are built in the region and online betting becomes more popular, this status quo is looking increasingly tenuous

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

"Take Penghu for example. Whether or not a casino can be set up on the outlying islands has aroused differing opinions between the ruling and opposition parties. It is a big policy. If the government hastily gives a green light to the establishment of the casino without taking into account possible consequences, things might become really difficult to resolve. It will be too late by that time."

The government has been burned before.

Baseball went from minor league to major betting scandal in six short years after the Chinese Professional Baseball League was founded in 1989. In 1996 it got so bad baseball players were being threatened, some pistol whipped and others kidnapped.

The public realized the games were being rigged and the young league split into two and nearly died before its time. Only this year with the re-formation of a single league has baseball once again become popular.

The law against gambling is similar to laws prohibiting drugs or prostitution. It is a paternalistic approach intended to prevent people harming themselves and others as a result.

Those against gambling cite studies in the US suggesting crime rates increase in states with casinos, and the number of people addicted to gambling increases fivefold

annually. For each dollar of gambling tax levied, they say, the government returns US$3 in social welfare benefits connected to gambling.

In Thailand, a recent report found gambling accounted for 10 to 18 percent of a gambler's income, and one in four people had gambling debts. The doomsayers predict unbridled

gambling in Taiwan if the law is relaxed, with low-income families in particular suffering and the costs passed down to children. They associate gambling with crime, not the "fun" activity Sportingbet said it promotes.

Even so, the most likely bet is the government will eventually capitalize on gambling and open up casinos in Penghu based on the US model of gaming, leisure and entertainment.

"It's clear that the voices trumpeting the establishment of casinos in specific areas are getting louder and louder," said Huang Jung-chien (黃榮堅), a professor of law at National Taiwan University.

"When the government considers opening up casinos or lowering the threshold for gambling operations, it has to take into consideration different aspects, including tax revenues, tourism, social welfare, management, among others. It does not involve just one aspect."

If the government does not act to catch the revenue streams from gaming, then foreign companies will continue to profit from being Taiwan's bookie, either online, or in nearby countries.

Also, countries which have legal gaming might view the government's position as protectionism. "After all, why should Taiwan close its domestic market to legally based Internet suppliers but still be able to export the technology?" Blandford said.

Since the government cannot stop gambling (it sponsors it through lotto) and may be pressured to open up its markets anyway, the line of least resistance is to reap local bettors' losses, rather than let foreigners profit.

Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of casinos in Penghu, with a survey last week commissioned by the Interior Ministry showing nearly two-thirds of people in favor and 22 percent against.

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