Photo/IllutrationA nonprofit organization uses running to help overcome gambling addiction. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

An estimated 3.2 million people in Japan are suspected to have become addicted to certain types of gambling, including pachinko, bicycle racing and horse racing, at least once.

Last month, a new basic law to deal with the serious social problem of compulsive gambling came into force. The law stipulates the responsibilities of the central and local governments for tackling this insidious human vice, which can lead to such grave consequences as multiple debts, suicide, various forms of abuse and crime.

The government has decided to work out a basic plan to seek to cure the social ills of gambling addiction by April next year. It will shortly start hearing from experts and other people concerned for the development of the plan.

To ensure an effective and well-thought-out plan, it is vital to seek the advice and opinions from a wide range of people, including not only doctors and researchers but also the families and supporters of compulsive gamblers.

It is generally believed that gambling addiction is a problem for people with a weak will. But it is actually a type of mental disorder caused by excessive dopamine release in the brain.

Many compulsive gamblers refuse to recognize their addiction, which is sometimes described as a “disease of denial.”

As a result, their families often end up becoming exhausted from having to deal with such taxing problems as violent behavior and heavy debts that gamblers incur.

The burdens of taking care of addictive gamblers and people around them have so far been borne mainly by self-help groups of the suffering families of patients and private-sector counseling organizations.

The government needs to provide sufficient financial support for such groups as part of joint public-private efforts to prevent and cure the problem.

A raft of policy measures should be included in the government’s basic plan. The capabilities of core public facilities to provide effective counseling services should be enhanced to ensure that gambling addicts can receive appropriate medical care regardless of where they reside. The key facilities include local public health centers and mental health welfare centers across the nation.

In addition to medical institutions, the government should also seek the cooperation of legal support organizations such as the “Ho Terasu” Japan Legal Support Centers for the policy efforts.

It is also necessary to take steps to help patients return to society and find employment and to enhance related school education and public awareness of the issue.

Another crucial factor is active cooperation from the operators of pachinko parlors and public gambling facilities.

One step that can prevent compulsive gamblers from falling deeper into addiction is imposing restrictions, based on declarations by themselves or their families, on their entry into gambling facilities and purchases of betting slips for horse races and boat race tickets, either at ticket offices or via the Internet.

Some are calling for the introduction of a smart ID card system for gambling like the “Taspo” card, which is required for purchasing cigarettes from vending machines.

Since different ministries and agencies are in charge of regulating different forms of gambling and local governments are also involved, it has long been said that developing and executing unified and integrated policies to deal with gambling addiction is a tough challenge.

The enforcement of the new law should catalyze more cooperative efforts to tackle the problem among different government organizations based on the principle of putting the top priority on reducing the number of people falling into the abyss of gambling addiction instead of securing profits.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has pushed through the initiative to introduce casinos into Japan in the face of opposition and concerns among many people.

Is the administration’s move to take steps to cope with gambling addiction only aimed at defusing criticism against the casino initiative? Or is it really committed to ensuring the people’s “wholesome lives” and building a “society where people can live with a sense of security” as stipulated in the law?

The answer will become clear when the administration comes up with a specific plan to achieve the policy goal.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 6