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Macau and Singapore offer lessons on fighting gambling addiction

Balancing costs and benefits key as Japan prepares to open door on casinos

A man tries his luck at a slot machine at a casino in Macau: Japan is grappling with how to address gambling addiction as it prepares to bring casino gambling into the country.   © Reuters

HONG KONG/SYDNEY -- As Japan prepares to open its first casino, possibly in the mid-2020s, concerns about gambling addiction are looming larger.

Japan may be able to learn from the steps other Asian locales are taking to control gambling addiction, while maximizing the economic benefit of casinos. Japan is thought to have a relatively high proportion of gambling addicts, compared with other countries, a problem often attributed to the presence of many pachinko pinball parlors and horse racing tracks near where people live.

In Macau, home to the world's largest casino market, a booth near the entrance of Galaxy Entertainment Group's casino displays the RG logo. RG, is short for "responsible gambling," the Macau government's campaign to deal with compulsive gamblers. The booth has a phone that problem gamblers can use to call experts for help.

Melco Resorts & Entertainment in 2016 introduced a facial recognition system at the entrance to its casino to identify people with history of gambling problems and block them from entering. Employees make the rounds inside, approaching customers who appear overexcited, cautioning them to slow down.

The company is developing an advanced biometric identification system ahead of the launch of its business in Japan, said Ako Shiraogawa, head of Melco Resorts & Entertainment's Japan unit.

Gambling was legalized in Macau in the mid-1800s. There are six companies operating around 40 casinos in the Chinese territory. After gambling addiction became a major social issue in the early 2000s, the local government introduced a policy requiring casinos to bar people if they or their family members request it. After the measure was introduced, the percentage of gambling addicts among Macau residents aged 18 or older fell to 2.5% in 2016 from 4.3% in 2003, according to a survey by the University of Macau.

As part of Macau's Responsible Gambling program, booths are installed outside the entrances of casinos where people who think they may have a gambling problem can ask for help.

Singapore has different rules for citizens and foreign nationals. Citizens must pay 100 Singapore dollars ($73) per day and an annual fee of SG$2,000 per year to enter casinos. The government can restrict the entry of anyone it deems financially unable to gamble.

In the Australian state of Victoria, casino patrons can set a maximum betting amount and daily time limit for themselves, at the door or online. Once these limits are set, the customer is notified when they reach 70%, 90% and 100% of the ceiling.

One casino that takes it a step further is Kangwon Land in South Korea's northeastern county of Jeongseon. The facility has an addiction management center that helps cover hospital costs to treat addiction, and provides job training prior to a person's return to normal life.

Kangwon is the only casino in the country that admits South Koreans, but under strict control. Admission tickets bear the holder's entry history. Those who have entered 15 times monthly over two consecutive months are temporarily denied further access and required to attend an anti-addiction class at the addiction management center.

The American Psychiatric Association says gambling addicts tend to increase their wagers because it gives them an emotional high; they often lie to family members to conceal a gambling problem. The World Health Organization recognizes gambling addiction as a disease.

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare estimates that 3.6% of Japanese adults may have had an addiction to gambling. A survey conducted by the ministry found that 0.8% of respondents reported having a problem with gambling in the last year. The figure was 1.2% in France, 0.9% in Canada and 0.4% in Italy. The ministry believes the prevalence of gambling in Japanese society contributes to the large number of addicts.

The Japanese government has introduced a rule limiting casino patrons to three visits a week and no more than 10 per month. Customers will also be required to pay a 6,000 yen ($54) admission fee. The government also plans to introduce a system to restrict admission to casinos, at the request of the individual or family members, similar to the steps taken in Macau and Singapore.

Helping potential problem gamblers resist temptation while fostering an industry that allows casual gamblers to have a little fun will require a deft regulatory touch.

Nikkei staff writer Sotaro Suzuki in Seoul contributed to this report.

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