Easy to get in, hard to get out

With an increasing number of people falling prey to online gambling addictions, getting help for your loved ones along with amending outdated laws and enforcing them is the only way to tackle this scourge

Tik Kanitsarin -- a well-known TV personality and participant of Big Brother in 2006 -- accumulated great debts after stepping into the world of online gambling, a habit that has turned her life upside down.

Tik became addicted to baccarat, a type of card game typically played in casinos. However, she is not the only person to lose money while gambling. In fact, the problem is so severe that there is a Facebook page by the name of "Quit Baccarat: Online Gambling", which serves as a support group for its 31,000-strong members to help online gamblers quit their unhealthy habit.

A Facebook support group to quit baccarat. (Photo: facebook.com/groups/2592616104154699)

According to Chulalongkorn University's Centre for Gambling Studies, over 30 million Thais gambled in 2019 -- 21% of whom were youngsters between the ages of 15 and 18 and nearly half were between 19 and 25. Moreover, the Thailand Youth Institute also revealed that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of online gambling websites has increased from 240 in January to over 580 in June. The most popular game, according to data from the Aiesec Organisation, is "Shooting Fish", followed by the illegal lottery, slot games and baccarat.

"Online gambling is dangerous because results come out in a few minutes and gamblers are able to play again immediately, whereas other forms such as football gambling involve a 90-minute wait for results. Moreover, each game is designed to look like it can be won easily and most players believe they have a 50-50 chance of winning. When they lose, they immediately want to play again which usually leads to more trouble."

Additionally, in casinos, there is table limit for placing bets but no such limits exist in online gambling, according to Thanakorn Komkris of the Stop Gambling Foundation (SGF). To attract new players, gambling websites advertise on many platforms and employ word-of-mouth strategies.

An online gambling advertisement on Twitter. (Photo: Royal Casino)

"The gambling industry tries to lure in players in different ways. We noticed that frequent gamblers often share the Line ID of agents with their acquaintances or friends and when they register, they receive credits to play the first round for free. Gambling websites also advertise on Facebook pages which have nothing to do with gambling in the first place. A study revealed that this strategy is quite effective as 15% of people who see such advertisements end up on gambling websites," said Thanakorn.

Besides being illegal, gambling has negative effects on society as well. So, why can't the state stop this scourge?

"Police usually claim that website domains or companies that operate gambling sites are based in other countries. In such cases, there are options available to the cops such as co-operating with internet providers to put pressure on gambling websites or shutting them down completely, but priority is not placed on this problem. Furthermore, to make a bet online, gamblers must create an account on these websites, so officers can work with financial institutions to block transactions linked to gambling," explained Thanakorn.

Dr Supara Chaopricha, a psychiatrist and director of Mind and Mood Clinic. (Photo: Dr. Supara Chaopricha)

Dr Supara Chaopricha, a psychiatrist and the director of the Mind and Mood Clinic, added that many studies have also shown that while a gambling addiction can be linked to genetics, it can also be caused by chemical components in our body.

"It's about genetics and parenting. Studies have shown that a gambler's brain is similar to that of a drug addict's since it activates the reward system in the same way drugs do. People who are at greater risk of becoming gambling addicts include men as well as people facing financial difficulties," said Dr Supara.

Gambling addiction is a grave concern since many players are adolescents and the habit can negatively impact their development.

"Teenagers' brains are still developing, so if they become obsessed with gambling, their brain, which has not yet fully developed, may stop focusing on developing social skills, emotions, and understanding ethics and morals. Studies have also shown that some gamblers also suffer from other symptoms such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and substance abuse. Gambling addictions have a significant impact on adolescents since it affects them in an important transitional period in life and has a grave impact on their future," explained Dr Supara.

Yet not all gamblers are addicts. Dr Supara points out that some people gamble occasionally but that does not mean they are addicts. It is quite easy to discern between the two groups since compulsive gamblers display behavioural disorders.

"We have routine activities that we must do to take care of ourselves such as having meals, showering and sleeping, however, gambling addicts give up even these basic tasks. They don't bathe or sleep and their social skills and employability take a hit because they spend time thinking about gambling. The most noticeable disorder amongst gamblers is lying about money. They often promise to return what they borrow but they usually have no way to pay it back," Dr Supara said.

"Problem gamblers do nothing but obsess about gambling. Like alcoholics and drug addicts, gamblers crave gambling and develop a tolerance for it. With each passing day, they have to gamble and spend more to satisfy themselves."

People with gambling disorders rarely go see a psychiatrist because they believe they aren't sick and they can control themselves, just like alcoholics who think they will drink but not get drunk.

"Gamblers who do go see psychiatrists usually have other problems such as legal or debt troubles which causes them to feel depressed, anxious and even have suicidal thoughts. Relatives should act to help family members suffering from gambling addiction and get them to go see a psychiatrist when they notice their behaviour has changed over time. While gamblers may not accept that they are addicted, a psychiatrist will still treat them and later try to make them understand their addiction," explained Dr Supara.

Thanakorn Komkris, secretary of the Stop Gambling Foundation (SGF). (Photo: Thai Health Promotion Foundation)

"Gambling addicts must stay away from tempting environments. If they remain in a place that that can trigger their craving to gamble, they may not be able to control themselves. Treatment will naturally include medication and mental therapy but there should also be a state law to prevent underage gambling and other laws to keep gambling under control so that people will be afraid or not be as tempted to engage in the activity," the psychiatrist added.

Furthermore, the Thailand Gambling Act B.E.2478 (1935) was implemented 85 years ago, which has raised concerns that the law is not up to date. However, Thanakorn believes it just needs to be amended slightly to regulate online gambling.

"Section 12 of the Gambling Act covers advertisements. Although it doesn't include the word 'online gambling', it is interpreted to regulate online gambling advertisements. Under Section 12, people who organise or advertise gambling are subject to a maximum of three-year imprisonment or a fine of no more than 5,000 baht or both. Five thousand baht may have been a lot of money back then but that's not the case today, so the law should be updated in terms of punishment," Thanakorn suggested. The goal of SGF is to educate people about the negative impacts of gambling through several kinds of media. They also plan to introduce services to advise gamblers who need help.

An online gambling advertisement through SMS.

"In 2018, the hotline 1323 by the Department of Mental Health became available to provide advice to gambling addicts, however, it now focuses more on mental health issues and gambling-related advice has decreased. The SGF realises that there are not enough consulting services available for gamblers and we would like to provide this kind of assistance. However, it will take time to set something like this up due to our limited resources. In the meantime, we are trying to connect people who call other state organisations which might not be able to help them," said Thanakorn.

Both Thanakorn and Dr Supara agree that love and strong family relationships can help people solve their problems and get them out of trouble.

"When someone realises that there is a person who seriously cares about them and is willing to help them out, it can help gamblers overcome their addictions. Many cases have shown that love and solid family relationships can conquer just about anything," concluded Dr Supara.

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