Limited options on legal websites unlikely to help curb compulsive gambling

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee seems to assume that with the introduction of legalised online gambling, a significant number of gamblers who are currently gambling on illegal sites would make a complete switch to legal ones ("Heated exchange on bid to allow limited online gambling"; Tuesday).

This is highly unlikely, as most gamblers using illicit sports betting sites are attracted by the variety of bets they can place on these websites.

These include real-time betting when a match is already under way, and offers on obscure bets, such as determining which team would win the first corner kick of the game.

Even in the unlikely scenario that the two lottery operators allowed to offer online gambling were to modify their sites to match popular international betting sites, they would be able to offer betting on only three sports, namely, football, Formula One racing and horse racing.

This would not attract a significant number of sports gamblers who regularly bet on a variety of sports matches.

It would not attract the average non-sports punter either because popular casino-style games such as poker would not be offered by the legalised sites.

For many compulsive gamblers, the new legalised online sites would serve only as a complement, and not a substitute, to their regular punts on illegal websites.

Offering these legal sites would instead increase the number of options for these compulsive gamblers.

For instance, a compulsive gambler may spend the same amount of money betting on illegal sites but would now fork out some money to bet on these legal sites if they offer better odds for some matches.

Studies have shown that legal gambling options would help such gamblers feel less guilt, as they are now able to see themselves as "half-sanitised" in betting on both legal and illegal platforms, instead of seeing themselves as completely deviant if they were to place bets only on illegal platforms.

Legalising online gambling will also invariably lead to an increase in the number of first-time or casual gamblers, as it offers a less stigmatising manner of placing bets.

These gamblers would also be attracted by the ease of placing their bets on digital platforms instead of having to walk to the nearest physical outlet.

I hope the authorities contemplate these pertinent issues.

Robin Chee Ming Feng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'Limited options on legal websites unlikely to help curb compulsive gambling'. Subscribe