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12:39

Georgia bets big on gambling industry, now one in six gamble their livelihoods and lives away

Georgia, Tbilisi
April 18, 2019 at 09:31 GMT +00:00 · Published

"It’s difficult for me and my children to watch a person who doesn’t exist anymore," says 50-year-old Lela, mother of two and grandmother of three, whose husband gambled away their property and left them drowning in debt.

"He is aggressive and inadequate. He has lost his grip on reality and [lost] his kids that he used to love. It’s very difficult for me to talk about it," Lela explains, fighting back tears. "Basically, our family doesn’t exist any more and that is very painful.”

"You don’t communicate with anyone, you are isolated from everything, from the outside world and you don’t think about anything but the game. Play, eat and sleep," says Hristo, a middle-aged man who has spent the best part of his life gambling.

According to the hairdresser, who is still fighting severe gambling addiction, the agony suffered by his need to play and fend for his family at the same time has made his life a living nightmare.

"I wanted to commit suicide many times," Hristo admits as he explains that he had 'the eyes of a madman.'

He confesses that the ultimate 'fight' with his family came when he gambled away the money needed to treat his sick child.

In Georgia, a country of around 3.7 million people, some 15-20 percent of the population are thought to be addicted to gambling.

That's according to an unofficial poll that was conducted by a working group consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Finance and NGOs in 2018.

Lasha Giorgadze, Head of the 'Centre for Civil Involvement' NGO, says: ''700,000 people lose not only their things but others too - like their families and friends.”

According to Andrea Gvichiani, an expert in gambling addiction, the gambling business’s turnover in Georgia was 5.6 billion GEL ($2.1 billion/ € 1.8 billion) in 2017 - which is a staggering 40-fold increase on 2010.

The figure has been confirmed by the ‘Geostat’ bank of national statistics which also indicated that in 2017, the food market industry amounted to 1.5 billion GEL ($564,000/€ 493,000) meaning that Georgians spent more money gambling than buying food that year.

Giorgadze believes that it's poverty that pushes people to gambling.

According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, unemployment in the country was 12.7 percent in 2018.

Gvichiani traces the problem to the absence of legislative restrictions "that could hamper the gambling business," as well as the apparent freedom that betting enterprises have enjoyed from 2004 onwards.

The national gaming regulations foresee that a casino operator is free to obtain a five-year permit from the Revenue Service of Georgia after paying a specified fee for each city.

For the two biggest gambling destinations in Georgia, Tbilisi and Batumi, the annual fee up until 2017, was 5 million GEL (US $1.9m / €1.7m) and 2.5 million GEL ($941,000 / €821,000) respectively.

In December 2017 the Ministry of Finance introduced a regulatory piece of legislation implementing restrictions for gambling to the Georgian Parliament. The Bill on Gambling Advertising Ban would have disallowed advertising within a radius of 200 metres of religious, children's, educational or medical institutions, cultural and sports organisations. After passing all the committee stages it was rejected by Parliament on April 5, 2019.

Independent MP Levan Gogichaishvili, who was backing the introduction of such a law, stressed the need for action. "About 20-25 percent of our population is probably involved in this activity [gambling] and this is difficult for both them and the economy," he said.

Lela Zardiashvili saw her 30-year marriage fall to pieces when her husband started selling off their property to break even on his gambling debts.

"He was terribly stressed about the debts he had and he became aggressive towards our children and me," she says.

Lela explains how her husband’s gambling debts forced him to sell off their car and house, gradually leaving them without any income at all.

"We were left without a home," Lela confesses.

In her time of need, Lela had to turn to independent structures to help support her family, due to the lack of adequate state-run services.

'Mothers against Gambling' was founded by Tamar Jafaridze, the mother of a young compulsive gambler who was addicted to slot machines, who created a structure directed at helping families with addicted relatives.

Her NGO offers psychological support and legal consultation but is unable to cope with the increasing number of daily calls.

"There is not a single day, when I don’t receive eight or 10 calls on my personal number," Tamar explains.

"Ludomans," Tamar says, referring to 18 to 21-year-olds addicted to fruit machines, "apply radical measures when they have the urge to play and can’t find the money. 'Ludomania' is the clinical term for gambling compulsion.

"I’ve seen many of them with cuts on their veins. Some took too many psychotropic pills, some of them abused their mother or wife," she said.

In Tamar’s opinion, "the legal gambling age should be raised from 18" and Georgia "should use Europe’s experience" such as in Greece, where the gambling age is 23, and Portugal, where it’s 25.

There is an abundance of betting shops, casinos and slot machines in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi as well as resort cities such as Batumi, where the streets are adorned with casino adverts, signs for slot halls and billboards for online betting sites.

Since the majority of Georgia’s neighbouring countries have banned gambling or land-based gambling altogether, the country has become an 'oasis' for visitors from Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.

Gamblers in need of money end up in pawn shops with the promise of quick cash and low interest rates.

According to data obtained by Jafaridze, there are "more than 1,000 pawn shops" located in the city of Tbilisi alone and they make up 73 percent of the total 47.5 million GEL (US $17.2m, €15.3m) annual revenue.

Twenty-four-hour casinos and slot halls are dispersed all over the city and people can access them throughout the day and night.

The streets of Tbilisi are littered with ads and signs promoting their year-round capacity or referring people to their online betting sites.

Hristo wants "all the casinos to shut down," since, according to him, they are "terrible." He stresses that the "entire society" around him is playing.

"Seventy percent of people around me play, everybody, even those whom I did not expect to," he says.

In Hristo and Lela’s cases, living in a country where gambling is allowed everywhere every day means that they have to face their demons constantly.

For Lela, it’s dealing with her husband’s debts and the future of her family.

For Hristo, it’s dealing with his ongoing struggle to escape from a pit of addiction.

12:39
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"It’s difficult for me and my children to watch a person who doesn’t exist anymore," says 50-year-old Lela, mother of two and grandmother of three, whose husband gambled away their property and left them drowning in debt.

"He is aggressive and inadequate. He has lost his grip on reality and [lost] his kids that he used to love. It’s very difficult for me to talk about it," Lela explains, fighting back tears. "Basically, our family doesn’t exist any more and that is very painful.”

"You don’t communicate with anyone, you are isolated from everything, from the outside world and you don’t think about anything but the game. Play, eat and sleep," says Hristo, a middle-aged man who has spent the best part of his life gambling.

According to the hairdresser, who is still fighting severe gambling addiction, the agony suffered by his need to play and fend for his family at the same time has made his life a living nightmare.

"I wanted to commit suicide many times," Hristo admits as he explains that he had 'the eyes of a madman.'

He confesses that the ultimate 'fight' with his family came when he gambled away the money needed to treat his sick child.

In Georgia, a country of around 3.7 million people, some 15-20 percent of the population are thought to be addicted to gambling.

That's according to an unofficial poll that was conducted by a working group consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Finance and NGOs in 2018.

Lasha Giorgadze, Head of the 'Centre for Civil Involvement' NGO, says: ''700,000 people lose not only their things but others too - like their families and friends.”

According to Andrea Gvichiani, an expert in gambling addiction, the gambling business’s turnover in Georgia was 5.6 billion GEL ($2.1 billion/ € 1.8 billion) in 2017 - which is a staggering 40-fold increase on 2010.

The figure has been confirmed by the ‘Geostat’ bank of national statistics which also indicated that in 2017, the food market industry amounted to 1.5 billion GEL ($564,000/€ 493,000) meaning that Georgians spent more money gambling than buying food that year.

Giorgadze believes that it's poverty that pushes people to gambling.

According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, unemployment in the country was 12.7 percent in 2018.

Gvichiani traces the problem to the absence of legislative restrictions "that could hamper the gambling business," as well as the apparent freedom that betting enterprises have enjoyed from 2004 onwards.

The national gaming regulations foresee that a casino operator is free to obtain a five-year permit from the Revenue Service of Georgia after paying a specified fee for each city.

For the two biggest gambling destinations in Georgia, Tbilisi and Batumi, the annual fee up until 2017, was 5 million GEL (US $1.9m / €1.7m) and 2.5 million GEL ($941,000 / €821,000) respectively.

In December 2017 the Ministry of Finance introduced a regulatory piece of legislation implementing restrictions for gambling to the Georgian Parliament. The Bill on Gambling Advertising Ban would have disallowed advertising within a radius of 200 metres of religious, children's, educational or medical institutions, cultural and sports organisations. After passing all the committee stages it was rejected by Parliament on April 5, 2019.

Independent MP Levan Gogichaishvili, who was backing the introduction of such a law, stressed the need for action. "About 20-25 percent of our population is probably involved in this activity [gambling] and this is difficult for both them and the economy," he said.

Lela Zardiashvili saw her 30-year marriage fall to pieces when her husband started selling off their property to break even on his gambling debts.

"He was terribly stressed about the debts he had and he became aggressive towards our children and me," she says.

Lela explains how her husband’s gambling debts forced him to sell off their car and house, gradually leaving them without any income at all.

"We were left without a home," Lela confesses.

In her time of need, Lela had to turn to independent structures to help support her family, due to the lack of adequate state-run services.

'Mothers against Gambling' was founded by Tamar Jafaridze, the mother of a young compulsive gambler who was addicted to slot machines, who created a structure directed at helping families with addicted relatives.

Her NGO offers psychological support and legal consultation but is unable to cope with the increasing number of daily calls.

"There is not a single day, when I don’t receive eight or 10 calls on my personal number," Tamar explains.

"Ludomans," Tamar says, referring to 18 to 21-year-olds addicted to fruit machines, "apply radical measures when they have the urge to play and can’t find the money. 'Ludomania' is the clinical term for gambling compulsion.

"I’ve seen many of them with cuts on their veins. Some took too many psychotropic pills, some of them abused their mother or wife," she said.

In Tamar’s opinion, "the legal gambling age should be raised from 18" and Georgia "should use Europe’s experience" such as in Greece, where the gambling age is 23, and Portugal, where it’s 25.

There is an abundance of betting shops, casinos and slot machines in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi as well as resort cities such as Batumi, where the streets are adorned with casino adverts, signs for slot halls and billboards for online betting sites.

Since the majority of Georgia’s neighbouring countries have banned gambling or land-based gambling altogether, the country has become an 'oasis' for visitors from Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.

Gamblers in need of money end up in pawn shops with the promise of quick cash and low interest rates.

According to data obtained by Jafaridze, there are "more than 1,000 pawn shops" located in the city of Tbilisi alone and they make up 73 percent of the total 47.5 million GEL (US $17.2m, €15.3m) annual revenue.

Twenty-four-hour casinos and slot halls are dispersed all over the city and people can access them throughout the day and night.

The streets of Tbilisi are littered with ads and signs promoting their year-round capacity or referring people to their online betting sites.

Hristo wants "all the casinos to shut down," since, according to him, they are "terrible." He stresses that the "entire society" around him is playing.

"Seventy percent of people around me play, everybody, even those whom I did not expect to," he says.

In Hristo and Lela’s cases, living in a country where gambling is allowed everywhere every day means that they have to face their demons constantly.

For Lela, it’s dealing with her husband’s debts and the future of her family.

For Hristo, it’s dealing with his ongoing struggle to escape from a pit of addiction.

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