GENEVA • Switzerland goes to the polls tomorrow to decide whether to back a new gambling law designed to prevent addiction and allow some online betting, or reject what opponents say amounts to Internet censorship.
Recent polls indicated that a clear majority planned to support the new law, which has already been passed by both houses of Parliament, and now is being put to a high-stakes referendum.
The Swiss government says the Gambling Act updates legislation for the digital age, while raising protections against addiction.
If approved by voters, the law would be among the strictest in Europe and would only allow casinos and gaming companies certified in Switzerland to operate, including on the Internet.
This would enable Swiss companies for the first time to offer online gambling, but would basically block foreign-based companies from the market.
This aspect of the law in particular spurred a coalition, made up primarily of the youth wings of various political parties, to gather more than the 50,000 signatures needed to launch a referendum.
Opponents have slammed Bern for employing "methods worthy of an authoritarian state", with a measure that they claim is "censorship of the Internet".
"This sets a very dangerous precedent," Mr Luzian Franzini, co-president of The Greens' youth wing and head of the campaign against the new law, told AFP.
But Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga insists that allowing only Swiss-based companies to sell gambling services is "indispensable" to ensure that everyone in the space adheres to strict rules, like blocking known addicts.
According to Addiction Switzerland, some 75,000 people in the small Alpine nation of 8.3 million inhabitants suffer from gaming addiction, costing the society more than half a billion Swiss francs annually.
Bern also wants all of the companies' proceeds to be taxed in Switzerland, with revenues helping fund anti-addiction measures, as well as social security and sports and culture programmes.
According to GREA, an association that studies addiction, Swiss gambling and betting companies pulled in nearly 1.7 billion Swiss francs (S$2.3 billion) in 2016, of which more than half went to "the public good".
But opponents claim Switzerland could make more money by issuing concessions to foreign companies that agree to be regulated and taxed. And they charge that the new law will actually drain away revenues, since it raises the threshold for taxable winnings to over one million francs, compared with 1,000 francs today.
Mr Franzini said the law represents a windfall for Swiss casinos, which had put "huge amounts of money into campaigning".
The new gambling law is one of several issues facing popular votes at the national, regional and local levels as part of the country's famous direct democratic system.
Voters will also be asked if they support a "sovereign money" initiative, which would legally bar any institution besides the central bank from creating new money.
In southern Valais canton, polls indicate that voters will snub a bid for the town of Sion to host the 2026 Winter Olympics.