Unsafe Bets

The numbers are frightening: Some 70 percent of Israelis gamble and 20 percent of these are defined as pathological gamblers. Almost 700,000 Israelis are addicted in one way or another to the disease.

Once again, Yuval Semo is portraying on television a guy who is something of a tactless fool, yet amusing, naive and captivating. "I bet you, if I'm not gay then tomorrow we'll be in Thailand," he brags to an attractive woman he meets in a library, and immediately moves on to pester another woman reading a biography of Mussolini. "My feeling's he dies at the end. Wanna bet?"

Semo is the "bettor," the star of a publicity campaign for "Winner" (formerly Toto ) that has conquered the television channels, radio stations, Internet sites, cinema screens, billboards and newspapers. "Wanna bet I can make it on Winner?" Semo asks naively - like a mere bettor, not a gambler.

The "Winner" campaign and the state that operates it want you to think that gambling is merely like nice bets of this kind - amusing and childish - between friends. Israel does not allow the operation of casinos within its borders, unlike almost every other country in the Western world. The fear is that legal gambling houses will increase crime and addiction to gambling.

At the same time, Israel makes it possible for hundreds of illegal gambling houses to operate within its borders. And what is worse, it causes hundreds of thousands of Israelis to become addicted to games of chance operated by Mifal Hapayis - the state lottery, and the Sports Betting Board.

If once upon a time we were satisfied with a weekly lottery of the Payis and Toto and a few cards to scratch for lucky numbers, today there are dozens of different lotteries every day, in addition to all kinds of games one can bet on at any given moment. In many countries, it is possible to bet on "Kino" or "Chance" or soccer games, but blatant publicity, on all kinds of media, for games of chance can be found only in a very few countries.

"I don't know any country where there are no regulations and prohibitions with regard to publicizing gambling in all the media and all over the public space," says Nahum Michaeli, director of the alcohol and gambling treatment unit at the Efshar Association for the Development of Social Education in Israel. "Everyone talks about addictions to alcohol and drugs, but it is gambling that creates the most compulsive addicts."

The numbers are frightening: Some 70 percent of Israelis gamble and 20 percent of these are defined as pathological gamblers. Almost 700,000 Israelis are addicted in one way or another to the disease. The side effects include loss of income and savings, loss of money belonging to family and friends, crises in the family including sometimes family breakups, and psychological problems, including depression and attempts at suicide.

"Many gamblers begin to develop an addiction during childhood or in early puberty," notes Professor Pinhas Dannon, who treats people addicted to gambling at the Beer Yaakov Mental Health Center. "The state must take dramatic action to help hundreds of thousands of people who are in distress, but instead of that it encourages them to gamble even more and constantly nurtures new gamblers."

In numerous countries that operate games of chance, considerable sums from the profits are transferred to not-for-profit organizations that assist the addicts. Details of whom to contact for help are printed on the back of the lottery cards, so that people know what to do if they feel they are becoming addicted. In Israel, Mifal Hapayis and the Sports Betting Board donate only a few hundred thousand shekels - out of their annual income of more than NIS 6 billion - to the single association that tries to treat only several hundred addicts every year.

Is so much damage justified merely to set up community centers and sports halls? The State of Israel believes it is. Because after all, we are not talking about gambling at all, but just about a few small bets.