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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.

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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.

C/U Fruit machine

M/S Fruit machine

M/S Man playing 'fruits'

C/U Man in front of fruit machine

W/S Casino in Tbilisi

M/S Casino screen advertising

M/S Hair salon window

W/S Gambling addict Hristo working at a hair salon

C/U Hristo cutting hair

C/U Hristo

C/U Hairdressing tools

SOT, Hristo, Gambling addict (Russian): "I am Hristo Mxitaryan and I gamble."

M/S Hristo

SOT, Hristo, Gambling addict (Russian): "I was watching how adults were playing and I was asking them about it, I was 14-15 years old."

C/U Hristo

SOT, Hristo, Gambling addict (Russian): "My child was ill, there was not enough [money] and I thought I can make more money, I played and lost. Then I fought with my family."

C/U Hristo

SOT, Hristo, Gambling addict (Russian): "You move further and further from everyone. You don’t communicate with your friends either, and you don’t think about anything but the game. You go home, eat and sleep. I've wanted to commit suicide so many times. I’ve thought about it a lot."

C/U Hristo's eyes *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Hristo, Gambling addict (Russian): "Everyone around me is playing. Seventy percent of people around me play, everyone, even those whom I did not expect to."

C/U Hristo

SOT, Hristo, gambling addict (Russian): "But I want all the casinos to be shut down, damn it. Casinos are terrible."

W/S Tbilisi casino screen with advert

W/S Casino *DRONE FOOTAGE* *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Tbilisi casino entrance

SOT, Lasha Giorgadze, Head of NGO 'Center for Civil Involvment' (Georgian): "We have about 700,000 people who lose every day. They lose not only their own belongings but other people’s belongings as well like those of family members and friends."

W/S Tbilisi casino entrance

M/S People standing on street

W/S Traffic on street *SPECIAL EFFECT* *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

SOT, Lasha Giorgadze, Head of NGO 'Center for Civil Involvment (Georgian): "This is the characteristic everywhere. When the country is in a difficult situation, people can become involved in gambling very actively. And this is also a manifestation of our social situation."

M/S People walking along street

M/S Woman sitting on street and drawing

M/S Betting advertising

W/S Tbilisi

M/S Tbilisi street

M/S Mother and children on street

M/S Lela Zardiashvili, wife of gambling addict

W/S Lela Zardiashvili entering building

SOT, Lela Zardiashvili, Wife of gambling addict (Georgian): "My ex-husband, he is barely alive today. It’s difficult for me and my children to watch a person who doesn’t exist any more. Only the soul is left in a man who was once full of energy. He is aggressive and he has lost his grip on reality and his kids whom he used to love before ... It’s very difficult for me to talk about it [tears]."

W/S Lela with child petting a dog

C/U Child petting a dog

SOT, Lela Zardiashvili, Wife of gambling addict (Georgian): "We were left without a home and I want to repeat that we’re [now] waiting for the court verdict and we will have to leave our home soon. Personally, I don’t know if I can go through this, this will be the death of me."

M/S Laundry

M/S Hallway outside home

SOT, Lela Zardiashvili, wife of gambling addict (Georgian): "Basically, our family doesn’t exist any more and this is very painful. There are no relations between father and children. There are no relations between us."

M/S Children's shoes on stairs

C/U Toys

SOT, Lela Zardiashvili, Wife of gambling addict (Georgian): "I want to sue the gambling business and request a reimbursement so that our family of 14, including infants, my grandkids, do not have to live on the streets."

M/S Lela walking

W/S Founder of NGO 'Mothers Against Gambling' Tamar Jafaridze, and Lela Zardiashvili

M/S Tamar Jafaridze and Lela Zardiashvili

C/U NGO 'Mothers Against Gambling' flyer

SOT, Tamar Jafaridze, Founder of NGO 'Mothers Against Gambling' (Georgian): "There is not a single day, when I don’t receive eight or 10 calls to my personal phone number, from people asking for help. They ask what our offers are."

C/U Hands *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Tamar Jafaridze, Founder of NGO 'Mothers Against Gambling' (Georgian): "According to data, the turnover of the pawn shops is more than 47.5 million, 73 percent of it in Tbilisi. Overall, there are more than 1,000 pawn shops and you can’t even imagine the situation there. Pawn shops located near educational facilities are very dangerous traps for young people."

C/U Jafaridze talking *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Tamar Jafaridze, founder of NGO 'Mothers Against Gambling' (Georgian): "The legal gambling age should be raised from 18. If we want to move towards Europe, we should follow their experience. For example, the legal gambling age in Greece is 23, in Portugal, 25."

M/S Flyers on the table *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Tamar Jafaridze, Founder of NGO 'Mothers Against Gambling' (Georgian): "Ludomans [gambling addicts] apply radical measures when they have the urge to play and can’t find the money. I’ve seen many of them with cuts to their veins. Some took too many psychotropic pills, some of them abused their mother or wife."

M/S Betting advertising on the street

M/S Advertising

W/S Street

M/S Expert in gambling addiction Andrea Gvidiani *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

C/U Andrea Gvidiani

M/S PC screen

C/U Keyboard *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

SOT, Andrea Gvidiani, Expert in gambling addiction (Georgian): "Today, the gambling business is one of the strongest sectors in Georgia. The only number that shows how big this sector is, is a turnover of 5.6 billion Georgian Lari [1.8 billion euro, 2.1 billion dollars]. For a small country like Georgia these are very alarming numbers."

M/S Betting hall

M/S Betting advertising

SOT, Andrea Gvidiani, Expert in gambling addiction (Georgian): "If there are no restrictions and regulations of course the business is growing. There is no factor on the legislative side that could hamper the gambling business. And this is the reason why this business has increased at such a catastrophic pace and created problems in almost every family."

W/S Betting advertising on the street

W/S Cars on street

M/S People walking

W/S Parliament building

W/S Parliamentary session

M/S Member of Georgian parliament Levan Gogichaishvili at parliamentary session

M/S Levan Gogichaishvili at parliamentary session

SOT, Levan Gogichaishvili, Member of Georgian parliament (Georgian): "About 20-25 percent of our population is probably involved in this activity and this is difficult for both them and the economy. Because, these people are in fact constantly facing problems, in different directions, and these problems are not just their problems, these problems are already larger than them, these are [now] the problems of their families."

C/U Microphones in parliament session *CUTAWAY*

M/S Parliamentary session *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Levan Gogichaishvili, Member of Georgian parliament (Georgian): "So this is an ambitious plan, it’s an important, ambitious piece of legislation which will radically change the existing situation and, I think, after a few years, in perspective, the number of consumers will be reduced by 500 percent, because the natural barriers will be increased."

W/S Betting advertising on the street *SPECIAL EFFECT* *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Tbilisi *DRONE FOOTAGE* *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Casinos *DRONE FOOTAGE* *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S Bridge

C/U Gambling addict, Hristo, playing

C/U Hristo playing

SOT, Hristo, gambling addict (Russian): "You live in a closed world. This is worse than hell. Years pass and you don't even notice. Oh, how old I am …These years passed unnoticed because of the gambling. I didn't think about myself, I didn’t think about my relatives."

C/U Hristo crying

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