Pandora’s Box: Why residents should not be allowed to gamble in casinos
There are few physical reminders left of Hobby Horse Hall, such as the stables, converted into apartments.
The eponymous roadway near Commonwealth Bank in Cable Beach, is another reminder of the defunct racetrack once located in the vicinity of the new golf clubhouse at Baha Mar.
A younger generation of Bahamians have no memory of the racetrack which was shuttered decades ago. While many Bahamians over 50 have some memory of and others over 60 may be somewhat nostalgic about Hobby Horse Hall, many older Bahamians recall the downsides.
Racing was seasonal and when in season it was not daily. Even with limited opportunities for gambling, quite a number of families suffered as scores of gamblers placed bets on the horses in person or by proxy.
A friend recalls that his grandmother rarely missed an occasion to bet on the horses, much to the dismay of his grandfather. The usually sober-minded lady and daily churchgoer was obsessed with the races.
Vastly more Bahamians than tourists attended Hobby Horse. During the relatively short season grocery stores reported a drop in sales, mortgage payments fell off, and many essential family obligations were neglected, because many breadwinners were chasing the dream of easy money. Quite a number of working people exhausted their weekly pay check in a single day of betting.
The Pindling administration resisted calls to reopen the track. As casino gambling expanded and with the experience of Hobby Horse Hall in mind, the UBP and the PLP agreed that residents should be restricted from casino gambling, because they feared the social and economic havoc it might wreak on the country.
Many church leaders were opposed to gambling. A sort of historic compromise was reached in which visitors would be allowed to gamble, but not those ordinarily resident.
The compromise was based on a number of insights and had various components. Casino gambling was not an end in itself as the vision was not to make The Bahamas a gambling Mecca. That was not our brand.
Licences were granted as incentives for investors seeking to build resorts of a certain size on New Providence and Grand Bahama. Importantly, the restriction on casino gambling was placed on those ordinarily resident, both Bahamian and non-Bahamian.
Visiting Bahamians and non-Bahamians living overseas are allowed to gamble in the casinos, an essential distinction largely obscured in many discussions on the gaming bill.
The question is not about foreigners versus Bahamians. It is about residents and non-residents. Residents who are nationals of another country are also barred from casino gambling. It is essential that journalists and others get the distinction correct.
There is a question as to whether those ordinarily resident should be allowed to gamble in casinos. Some use the language of discrimination, going so far as to compare the issue with the fight for gender equality. It is a specious argument in significant ways.
For now, one example: The restriction on Bahamians owning handguns is viewed as discriminatory by some. For many others, including this writer, it is a reasonable exception in order to avoid the development of a broader gun culture which would have negative social consequences.
Residents gambling in the casino and restrictions on gun ownership are not based on biological givens, such as race, gender or sexual orientation. Instead the former are reasonable exceptions based on possible wide scale social harm.
As noted in a previous column, there are three broad philosophical clusters constituting the body of opinion on gambling, ranging from the prohibitionist viewpoint to that of the libertarian. Prohibitionists would ban all forms of gambling. Libertarians would allow for all forms of gambling.
The third cluster represents a more moderate and intermediate position, prioritizing a communitarian or common good argument of the social effects of certain types of gambling over the question of individual choice and autonomy.
In debating whether those ordinarily resident should be allowed to gamble in casinos, the public policy debate concerns much more than the question of rights. We should be equally concerned about social and economic effects.
There is perhaps a generational divide on the issue, with older Bahamians recalling the effects of Hobby Horse Hall more likely to oppose residents gambling, as opposed to a younger generation with little or no memory more prone to see this as a rights issue. This may be a stark example of Edmund Burke’s admonition: “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Public policy debates include both philosophical arguments as well as hard realities informed by historical and sociological insight.
Hothouse gambling in a casino environment with free drinks and a carnival atmosphere with flashing lights, scores of fellow gamblers, inducements to gamble and a panoply of games of chance, is emotionally quite different from buying numbers.
With the country set to legalize gambling activities by web shops, the addition of easy access to casino gambling by ordinarily resident Bahamians would have a devastating effect on the Bahamian society socially, economically, in terms of home life and a potential increase in various types of crime.
The Bahamas would become a gambling Mecca – for Bahamians gambling online and in casinos around the clock.
Add to this a 7.5 percent VAT, likely to go higher, amidst the ongoing decline of the middle class and increased poverty in a still struggling economy. We are courting disaster.
Cairns, a city of approximately 150,000, is the fourth most popular destination for overseas tourists to Australia. There is debate raging over plans for a mega resort and casino for the area.
The Cairns Post reports: “Social workers are struggling to treat large numbers of Far Northern residents for gambling addiction, claiming Aquis [the proposed resort] would push them over the edge.
“Centacare Cairns Executive Director Helga Biro said local social workers were already at saturation point assisting locals for gambling addictions.
“‘These are people who can’t afford to pay their electricity bills. They can’t afford to buy nappies or formula for their babies…so they need to come for social assistance’.”
A report on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website noted the concerns of “State Coordinator General Markham [who] warned that 1,500 extra poker machines will result in Cairns locals losing an additional $56 million a year by 2021.
“That would equate to each adult resident in Cairns spending an extra $240 per year on pokies [slot machines]. He says 60 percent of those new pokie losses would come from around 4,000 new problem gamblers.
“The modelling forecasts $22 million lost to poker machines by just 950 high risk problem gamblers.
“A further $12 million would be lost each year by around 3,000 so-called ‘moderate risk’ problem gamblers.
“Based on this modelling, Markham says the financial viability of the Aquis casino is likely to be propped up by just 4,000 people who are each spending between $3,000 and $23,000 a year.
“His research also shows that about 70,000 new recreational gamblers in Cairns would lose, on average, $16 million a year on pokies.”
The experience of Cairns, with a population of approximately 150,000, is instructive and disturbing for a country approaching 400,000 residents. In such smaller communities, the issue of problem gambling is often more pronounced.
Substitute New Providence or Bimini or Freeport for Cairns, with Bahamians being allowed to play the pokies in casinos, in addition to playing through web shops.
The owner of a popular restaurant near Paradise Island noted to this columnist that he initially thought that the bulk of his revenue would come from tourists. Instead it is repeat business by residents that is his gravy train.
Imagine near 24-hour, year-round access to casinos by residents at Bimini, Freeport and New Providence, with most residents about half an hour or less away from a casino.
This might destroy Bimini and wreak havoc on an already struggling Grand Bahama. In the main population center of New Providence residents would likely gamble in casinos on the way home from work, on lunch hours, and especially on weekends.
With sports betting in the mix in casinos, the increase in gambling by Bahamians will be phenomenal. In the off-season, resorts will likely market cheap rooms to residents, offering incentives for gamblers, including one-night gambling stands and weekend specials.
Younger residents on New Providence looking for something to do on weekends may flood the casinos in droves, creating a new generation of gamblers.
All of this outflow of considerable sums of money will go out of the country, possibly seriously effecting our fiscal position as a country.
Those who are arguing this matter as a rights issue may be quite naïve. We may well happily delight in our newfound “right” or “freedom”, as we spin the slot machines and play other games of chance, all the while gambling away our pay checks, savings and future as a country.
It is a Pandora’s Box we should not open, yet another means for too many seeking to buy hope that rarely comes and instead often leads to despair.
September 11, 2014