Inside Asian Gaming speaks with Davis Fong, Associate Professor in International Integrated Resort Management and Director of Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming at the University of Macau’s Faculty of Business Administration, about the extent of gambling disorders in the Asian gaming hub and Macau’s responsible gaming initiatives.
Andrew W Scott: How prevalent is problem gambling in Macau?
Davis Fong: We use a scale to calculate the prevalence of gambling disorders called DSM-V and from that scale we have found that around 2.5% to 2.6% of people suffer from one of the three different levels of gambling disorder. Using the old scale, the DSM-IV, the peak level was 6% in 2007 so if you look at this data I would say it’s pretty much under control. Even if you look back a little bit to 2003, the first year we conducted a prevalence study, at the time the level was 1.8% to 2.5%. That’s the percentage of all people aged 18 to 64. AWS: But not all people gamble, so if you look at it as a percentage of people that gamble, it will be a higher number.
DF: In 2003, we found that 65% of people had gambled at least once in the previous 12 months. Using the same scales and measures, the number in 2016 was around 50%. So, based on that measure to consider people who actually get involved in gambling, you multiply the overall percentage by two. Taking into account that 2.5% to 2.6% of all people suffer from some level of gambling disorder, that means the percentage of people who gamble that suffer from a gambling problem is around 5% today.
AWS: Do you have any research that gives you any insights into why it has gone down?
DF: Unfortunately we don’t have any testing regarding the downtrend in so-called problems, but there are four primary speculations. First is the introduction of responsible gambling initiatives in 2009 – in their ninth year already. I think people actually understand problem gambling and responsible gambling now. To be more precise, before we did any promotion of the issue, around 16% of people understood and knew about problem gambling and responsible gambling. Now that figure is 63%. From 16% to 63% – I guess there may be some effect from those people who understand it and can control their gambling behavior. This is one of the speculations: the effect of promoting responsible gambling.
Second, the government has directed a lot of resources to NGOs. Before 2004, there was only one treatment center. Now, we have several treatment centers including those run by the government, religious groups and NGOs.
The third speculation is a lower level of curiosity. In 2003 and 2004 there were new casinos, new attractions, new products. When Sands opened there was a high level of curiosity. Now the temptation and the curiosity level is lower. People think, “Oh another casino, that’s nothing new,” so the participation rate is lower.
Finally, Macau’s unemployment rate is 1.9%. People don’t have time to gamble. So those are the four speculations, but I can’t provide evidence.
AWS: How many problem gambling treatment centers do we have?
DF: For those associations with treatment centers, it’s around 10. Before, there were only one or two. Some of them provide a professional service and some of them provide a casual service. The standards may not be the same across the treatment centers because they have different ways of dealing with the so-called problem gambler or people with a gambling disorder. But it’s fine. As long as they provide the service, I think they can help some people at least. Treatment means they provide a service.
AWS: What is the visibility of responsible gambling to the top players who are primarily from mainland China? How can players know there is a program available to them?
DF: Very good question. Starting from 2017, last year, the government shifted the focus from local people to tourists. We put a lot of resources at the border gates. In Gongbei they actually have a booth there to download the app about problem gambling and responsible gambling. At the same time, we put a big billboard in front of the border gate to make tourists aware of problem gambling and responsible gambling. We also have responsible gambling kiosks, about 30 of them, around Macau. At the end of the day we hope each casino or gaming area will have a kiosk. Our ultimate goal is to have around 40 kiosks. That way, when tourists visit the casino floor, they can see the kiosk. We check the hit rates of these kiosks and up to this moment there have been around 30,000 hits at the kiosks with 70% of those from tourists.
AWS: Over what period of time have those 30,000 hits occurred?
DF: People coming to Macau several times are a moving target. We just calculate the kiosks, not the so-called TV awareness. Several years ago, the DICJ actually encouraged the casino operators to advertise their responsible gaming apps on their TV channel inside the hotels, so whenever you press the button to switch on the TV, you see RG app advertising. You can’t check how many people actually read this, but I can say it’s a very high awareness because most guests switch on the TV and it always pops up on the screen.
Another thing is that we encourage the casino operators to advertise their app not just on their hotel TVs but also their shuttle buses. They show some materials on the back of the seats and then the people can see it. Also there is pop-up advertising on electronic displays on casino floors. On each slot machine there must be one label providing the 24-hour helpline. This has been implemented for four years already.
AWS: Is there any particular demographic that is more susceptible to problem gambling?
DF: Yes. Based on the people who seek help, one-third are gaming industry employees. This is very important because it means if we pass a law to ban gaming employees from entering Macau casinos then one-third of the problem may be solved.
AWS: Due to the fact they are always here, does that mean Macau locals face the biggest danger?
DF: Yes, 95% are Macau locals. Only 5% are from Hong Kong or mainland China. The latter do seek help, but unfortunately we can’t provide a long-term treatment program for them because of their visa. They can’t live here. When we first started, 80% of the people to seek help were male but now it is closer to 70%. It has decreased gradually. Women are catching up. More and more women seek help today.
AWS: What about age group?
DF: The average age is 40-something although the latest data is indicating a slightly younger age.
AWS: It was recently proposed that dealers in Macau be banned from playing in any property, not just their own company’s properties. What is the state of play in regard to that proposal and what are your views?
DF: I support this initiative because in Macau there is a very special occupational risk. Almost 95% of GGR in Macau is contributed by table games versus 40% in Las Vegas. This means that most of the dealers actually deal for almost eight hours a day.
From my understanding, if people are involved with gambling activities for too long there will be a higher risk of their getting addicted. You may ask if there is any evidence to show such prevalence? From our last four surveys, the prevalence rate for dealers is a little bit higher than for the general population. However, as a scholar I would like to say it’s only a matter of time, because so many of them get involved.
Another indicator is that the casino gaming participation rate of the general population today is around 12%, but for dealers it is almost double.
AWS: Is the increased risk to dealers enough to justify banning all dealers in Macau from entering all casinos?
DF: I think in this situation, we cannot say there’s just a small group of dealers, because those dealers with a gambling problem may actually influence their friends and other dealers around them. You can interview some dealers and ask them a very simple question: in the last several years, were there any instances where your friends who are dealers borrowed money from you? You can ask and it will be high.
AWS: Do you have a raw number for how many people were treated for problem gambling or a gambling disorder in Macau in the last few years?
DF: 15,000 people a year. But this may not really be per year because there is a cumulative effect. Your problem gambler today can still be your problem gambler next year. Only 1% of them seek help.
AWS: What proportion of problem gamblers see their issues escalate to very serious levels?
DF: Based on our survey, 30% to 40% of problem gamblers have actually thought about committing suicide.
AWS: It is now 10 years since the responsible gambling initiative in Macau started. How did it begin in the first place and what were the biggest challenges in the early days?
DF: In the beginning, no one had heard about responsible gambling, including the legislative assembly members. The first time I presented the idea in public, I actually received a comment from a legislative assembly member asking, “Davis, are you promoting gambling using responsible gambling?”
It was very difficult to persuade them. But now they accept it – and not just accept it, we actually found some people would like to use responsible gambling as part of being a responsible government. It was also difficult at the start to convince casino operators.
At the very beginning they would say, “Davis, you are going to kill us” when I promoted responsible gambling. But there has been no negative impact on GGR. They understand we’re helping companies solve the problem – less people getting addicted means less crime associated with gambling.
Why do we say this? In 2003 and 2007 we actually took some statistics. We have 10 criteria. If a guy fulfills any of those 10 criteria, I can guarantee, 99%, that the person is a problem gambler.
So now casino operators provide dealer training on responsible gambling not just at orientation but every two years. They have refresher training. Just recently I visited Galaxy, who provide online training to everybody. I attended the orientation for 45 minutes where they demonstrated the interaction between the program and the dealers. I can say it’s quite effective. They don’t just train their staff but also use information technology to help the dealer understand problem gambling better and to educate them. Casino operators these days run responsible gambling programs on their own and not just because of government policy.
AWS: What could the Macau operators do better?
DF: Online training is a good direction because we have more and more gaming and non-gaming employees employed by casino operators. So simply relying on classroom training, by way of resources, is time consuming and may not be so efficient. In the future I encourage casino operators to use the online platform more.
But they also need to constantly check the effectiveness of the training. I already suggested to Galaxy that they evaluate their staff before and after orientation to measure the difference. Then two years later you refresh or recheck again whether it’s effective both before and after their training. That way you can modify your training materials more effectively. This is what we call continuous improvement.
Having said that, it is much more significant to determine human gambling behavior. If we have a good sense of value, a proper sense of value, I think we can get away from problem gambling behavior. Gambling is good for leisure, once in a while, even during the Chinese New Year. But just for fun.
AWS: Those sort of things are values though and it’s very hard to teach values. And a person’s parents need to have those values too in the first place, so that’s not going to be quick.
DF: Yes. You’re right. However, the company can do something. There’s a very important core value of the company called corporate culture. It means the company can create a culture for when their staff have leisure time. It could be sports, charity work, volunteer work. Peer learning, or even peer pressure, can be a very good example. Let them have a very healthy life when they have a day off.
Another thing is making sure the company takes a correct position towards gambling. In the beginning of casino liberalization, some dealers spoke to me saying, “You know what Davis? I’m very surprised. Last night my table lost almost HK$100,000 and then my manager moved me to another table. Do you know why? Because they believe there may be Feng Shui issues.” But come on, this happened by chance. No one can control which table wins HK$1 million or loses HK$1 million, so that means the management has some misunderstanding about gambling, about the business they are doing. It’s very hard to change, I understand.
It’s part of the culture. It’s part of the corporate understanding. They need to do it correctly to present a correct understanding of gambling.
AWS: How does Macau compare to other jurisdictions in regards to problem gambling?
DF: I can’t say we’re at the top, but we have developed a very good model for the Chinese community. Macau, I think, is the first Chinese community to develop a responsible gambling policy and I hope it is working. All the data, including the prevalence rate, actually meets our expectations. It is under control.