Insight: Italian gaming liberalization: a bet that did not pay off

Tue Jul 17, 2012 12:45pm EDT
 
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By Steve Scherer

ROME (Reuters) - Even in a time of deep economic crisis, the promise of a jackpot lurks on every Italian street corner.

In one central neighborhood near the ancient walls of Rome, one can gamble at a slot-machine and bingo parlour in a former cinema, at a bar with chirping video-betting games, at a hall for horse races, at a tobacco shop that sells a dozen varieties of lottery tickets and even at a local post office that sells scratch-and-win cards - all in a two-block radius.

Italy is now Europe's biggest gambling market and one of the biggest in the world, undermining consumer spending in the euro zone's third-largest economy at a time of severe recession and pushing a mounting number of gambling addicts onto the streets.

"In today's slightly desperate Italy, people gamble in hopes for a miracle," Andrea Riccardi, Italy's minister for international cooperation and integration, told Reuters.

Riccardi is a founder of Sant'Egidio, a Christian charity in Rome that has been increasingly flooded with problem gamblers since Italy started to relax regulations around the gaming industry two decades ago.

At first the new industry generated welcome state revenue and undercut the illegal gambling market dominated by organized crime, Italy's most destructive economic and social problem.

But revenues have risen only marginally while turnover more than quadrupled since 2001 to 80 billion euros last year, and the mob has simply shifted into legal gambling.

Government ministers like Riccardi and some lawmakers argue that deregulation has gone too far and want more rules, but no one is proposing a dramatic reversal.   Continued...

 
A woman plays on a slot machine in a bingo hall in downtown Rome July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Max Rossi