As more casinos open in Asia, and online gambling increases, mental health experts and governments are worried about addiction to gambling. Claudia Blume reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.
Wednesday is horse racing day in Hong Kong. All over the city, people crowd into one of the many gambling outlets of the Hong Kong Jockey Club to place their bets.
Serious-looking men and a few women stand around studying the odds of the day's races in newspapers and on TV screens.
For most people here, gambling is just a form of leisure and entertainment. But for some, it becomes an addiction that ruins their lives.
One of them is "Tony", a government official in his forties, who declines to give his real name. He says betting on horses started out as a pastime. He won a few times at first, played more and more often and couldn't stop once his lucky streak was over. Tony continuously lost money until, four years ago, he had amassed a debt of more than $100,000.
"I had to sell our apartment," he said. "My wife and I and our two daughters had to move in with my father-in-law, where the four of us shared one single room."
In Hong Kong, where betting on horses and football is legal, people have one of the highest per capita betting averages in the world, about $2,000 a year.
A study by Hong Kong Polytechnic University shows almost four out of five people in the territory participate in some form of gambling. That includes betting on horses or football, lottery games, casino gambling in neighboring Macau - but also mahjong games with family and friends.
People in Hong Kong are not the only Asians who love to gamble. Psychologist Samson Tse is a founding director of the Center for Asian Health Research and Evaluation at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He says gambling has strong roots in Asian culture, especially Chinese, and reflects the world-view of many people in the region.
"For example the notion of fatalism, the notion of luck and so forth," he explained. "We tend to think about life as a form of gamble and push our luck to see how far we can go. We work very hard, we try to survive in a very hardy environment - so anything that can help us improve our lives, anything that can help us to have fast, quick-fix solutions, we all will try."
Tse says while the participation rates of Asians in gambling activities is high, there is no evidence that more Asians are addicted to gambling than non-Asians. But he says this is partly due to psychologists' Western methods of evaluation, which may not be applicable to Asians. In addition, many people in Asia may be too ashamed to reveal they have a gambling problem.
Tse says it is hard to make exact predictions, but it is very likely more people will get addicted in the future, as an increasing number of gambling outlets open up in the region.
"Macau is one of the examples. And we know for a fact from the public health research - when people have increased level of participation, that usually leads to the increase in the scale and also the severity of pathological gambling," he said.
The number of gambling outlets in Macau, Asia's gaming capital, has more than doubled to 27 in the past few years. The city's revenue from gambling was seven billion dollars last year, making it the biggest single gaming market in the world.
Inspired by Macau's success, other Asian countries are jumping on the bandwagon. Singapore ended a decades-old ban on gambling two years ago, and will have two casino resorts by 2009. Japan and Taiwan are considering legalizing casinos.
And construction began earlier this year on a four-billion-dollar luxury gaming resort in southern Vietnam.
According to investment bank Merrill Lynch, casino companies are expected to spend as much as $71 billion in Asia over the next five years.
Janet Wong, a counselor at the Caritas Addicted Gamblers Counseling center in Hong Kong, says an increasing number of people who seek help at her center are gambling in Macau casinos. She says, in many cases, it is their family members who call, because they are at their wits' end.
"Some loan sharks escort the gambler from Macau to Hong Kong and make a phone call to the gambler's family members and ask them to help the gambler pay the debts," she said. "Usually, they don't have any information how to deal with the situation."
Samson Tse says what particularly worries him is that in some countries, such as South Korea, casinos are integrated with or close to resorts where families spend their holidays. In other countries, for example in New Zealand, gaming machines are set up in family restaurants.
"The problem of that, or the challenge of that is almost normalizing gambling to such an extent that it becomes a very daily, ordinary activity," he said.
Even more dangerous, he says, is the increasing trend of Internet gambling in the region. In South Korea, for example, according to South Korea's Cultural Information Center, about seven percent of the population is addicted to online gambling.
Addicts can gamble 24 hours, seven-days a week - without any social interaction that may stop them from doing so.
A number of governments in the region have started to address the problem. Two years ago, the first Asia Pacific problem gambling conference was held in Hong Kong. Singapore hosted another problem gambling conference last July.
South Korea provides educational material and school counseling in an attempt to stop the country's rampant Internet and online gambling addiction. In Macau, Singapore and Hong Kong, problem gamblers can call hotlines and seek help from several counseling centers that have opened in the past few years.