Gambling and gambling problems in Norway

Paper presented at the 4th conference of the European Association for the Study of Gambling, Warsaw, Poland, September 23., 2000.
Hans Olav Fekjær, M.D.

I have been asked to describe the field of gambling in Norway, and I will give a historical perspective.

When I grew up in Norway in the 40ies and 50ies, I was surprised to discover that some people were sceptical toward playing cards, which was one of my family's favorite activities on cosy Saturday evenings. I even discovered that some families had to hide the playing cards when the grandparents came for a visit. My parents explained that playing cards had formerly been strongly associated with gambling and gambling was, indeed, a very dirty word.

This was during the large part of the 20ieth century when general attitudes towards gambling were negative and gambling policy was very restrictive.

And it was in one of these Scandinavian countries dominated by traditional social democrat and protestant values. Money should be earned properly by hard work, not won by gambling or on the stock market. The ordinary, honest working man was praised by the politicians and in the media. Income inequalities were moderate and getting rich was not seen as a primary goal. I remember in 1973 watching our prime minister walking out of the parliament building, crossing the street and entering into his small Volkswagen "beetle" to drive home alone. And during the petrol crisis in 1974, our king went from the royal castle down to the subway which brought him to the forests where he could go skiing, and he insisted on paying his ticket. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what Norwegian values used to be like, values which are now quickly deteriorating.

I think the rapid change of values we are now experiencing is one of the necessary prerequisites for the recent explosion of gambling in Norway. Now, income inequalities are increasing, getting rich is more important, no matter how you earn or win the money. And according to the latest gallup polls, a right wing populist party is now the largest one. We now seem to be entering a century with more selfishness and greediness.

Legal gambling was originally introduced in the year 1719 by the king. The king was in Copenhagen, as Norway at the time was a victim of the Danish imperialism. The king gave away some large farms, manors, as the prizes for this state lottery. The profit was allocated to charity, to homes for orphans. But this lottery did not last for long.

During the 19th century, playing cards has obviously been the common type of gambling. It was wide-spread and led to obvious tragedies. My generation is familiar with the term "gambling away one's farm and land". It seems that one hundred years ago, most people knew family tragedies resulting from gambling. Therefore, public attitudes turned against gambling and gambling was reduced from a wide-spread to a rare activity.

I know some people will characterize this attitude as pietistic, but I will claim that to the extent that Norwegians were unhappy during the first 3/4 of the last century, it was certainly not due to the lack of gambling opportunities or, for that matter, the restricted availability of alcoholic beverages. Lots of family tragedies were prevented in a cheap and efficient way.

Legal gambling returned very slowly to Norway. Passive gaming was introduced in 1913, but with very modest stakes and prizes. Horse betting was introduced in 1927.

In the 1930ies, British football pool companies established agents in Norway. An influential senior civil servant wanted the profit to stay within the country and be spent for socially beneficial purposes. Because of Norway's cold climate, most Norwegians had not learnt to swim, and drowning accidents were frequent. He consulted the Norwegian Swimming Association, and although they were delighted with the idea of building swimming pools, the rejected the idea of accepting money derived from gambling, thus reflecting the current public attitudes towards gambling.

He tried again after the Second World War, and now he approached the Norwegian Sports Federation, who could accept a limited amount from gambling, not exceeding 5 million kroner or 550 000 dollars a year. He wanted a larger turnover at the football pool and in the end, the profit exceeding 5 million kroner was allocated to research.

This led to the establishment of the national lottery company, Norsk Tipping, and the introduction of football pools. Still, the prize amounts were limited and there was a minimum age of 18 years.

This situation on the gambling market remained relatively stable for decades, although bingo halls came in the 60ies and the Red Cross had their old-fashioned slot machines with very limited stakes and prizes.

But in the 80ies and 90ies, the Norwegian gambling market changed dramatically. The era in which most people had watched tragedies from gambling was 3 or 4 generations away. In 1982, horse betting was made available from thousands of shops all over the country. The turnover immediately doubled and has since doubled once more. The national lottery company introduced lotto, new types of lotto and instant scratch tickets. The lottery prizes increased and the age limits disappeared entirely. And, above all, in the middle 90ies, we had an explosion in the slot machine market.
Legal gambling in Norway:
1719 State lottery introduced by the king. The prizes were large farms. The profit was used for social welfare.
1913 Passive gambling introduced by the parliament.
1927 Horse betting introduced.
1946 Football pools introduced. Profit used for sports grounds and for research.
1960ies Introduction of bingo halls.
1980ies Lotto and instant tickets.
Horse betting from shops all over the country.
1990ies Explosion of modern slot machines.
New types of lotto.

Slot machines had been the privilege of Red Cross and a few other humanitarian organizations. The traditional financing of the NGOs had been the old-fashioned lotteries, you buy a ticket today and look in the newspaper next month to see the results. But with different kinds of lotto and instant tickets, people would not buy traditional lottery tickets any more. The NGO's lobbied intensely for an alternative source of income, and were allowed to participate in the slot machine market.

In addition, new technology increased the stakes, the prizes, the speed and the attractive and addictive properties of the slot machines. With a population of 4.5 million, we now have 30 000 slot machines. And in our country, they are not restricted to certain areas, but are everywhere - in grocery stores, restaurants and other public places. As our gambling patients say - they cannot even buy a bread without being met by the machines. During the 90ies, the expenditure on slot machines was multiplied by a factor of 47.

Last year, the gambling expenditure was high:
Gambling expenditure in Norway 1999:
22 billion Norwegian kroner
= 2.5 billion US dollars
Per capita:
4 800 Norwegian kroner
= 530 US dollars

The market was divided among the leading actors as follows:
Slot machines
42 %
State lotteries (lotto, football pools etc.)
37 %
11 %
6 %
5 %

There is a striking difference between the addictiveness of different types of gambling:
Proportion of total gambling expenditure Problem among patological gamblers
Slot machines
42 %
84 %
Horse betting
11 %
20 %
5 %
12 %
Football pools
4 %
10 %
6 %
8 %
24 %
4 %
Instant tickets
6 %
A few
Passive gaming
2 %
Foreign / internet
1 %

The table shows that in our country, the slot machines are the real villain. The gambling organized by the national lottery company are less addictive. Still, in my opinion, the national lottery's gambling poses two kinds of problems.

They are aggressively marketed, for 140 million kroner last year, especially by TV commercials which time and again presents us with happy lotto millionaires. The commercials do not lie, but they leave a totally misleading impression of the chances to win.

The instant scratch tickets are marketed with the slogan "20 kroner may quickly become 500 000". This is very close to a lie, for with average luck, you have to buy 1 million tickets costing 20 million kroner to win the first prize of 500 000 kroner. It seems reasonable to view the national lottery's marketing as not only promoting the company's own gambling activities, but promoting the idea of getting rich by gambling.

The second problem I see with the national lottery's gambling is that it is a very unfair type of taxation. Population studies in different countries demonstrate that gambling expenditure constitute a much larger proportion of poor people's income than of the higher income groups'. It is not a progressive, but a regressive tax. And the profit is now allocated to culture, sports grounds and research, activities most often performed by the middle and upper class. In this way, the national lotteries fool the poor into subsidizing the activities of the rich. That is hardly a social democrat policy.

By its rules, the state authorities has given the most addictive types of gambling, the slot machines, to the NGOs, thereby making it easier for the state lotteries to avoid blame and guilt for the problems.

The problems are, as Iain Brown puts it, "the hidden addiction". There is, undoubtedly, a larger number of gambling addicts than drug addicts and a much larger number than schizophrenics. But gambling problems do not smell are not easily visible from outside.

The feelings of guilt are extreme and everything is done to conceal the problems. This, combined with the novelty of gambling problems, probably account for the fact that in Norway and several other countries, the authorities has not built up a treatment system for gambling addiction, although the limited treatment research that has been performed, suggests that treatment for gambling addiction is probably more often successful than the treatment for alcohol and drug addiction.

At present, 3 out of 19 Norwegian counties have decided that the addiction treatment centers should also treat gambling addiction. In addition, two treatment centers have received project funding from the state for offering treatment programs, one for in-patient and my own in Oslo for out-patient treatment.

Treatment and research should be funded by a tiny tax on the gambling profits, which is the case in all Canadian and Australian states and in many US states.

Research is lacking in our country. There have been a couple of articles in professional journals, with a quality which is not too impressing. Last year, the private slot machine industry financed a study of teenage gambling which I will not quote because of the questionable quality. The report claimed to have used the SOGS questions, which it did not, and the participation rate was around 40 %.

We are now planning an independent population survey in cooperation with the Section for Addiction, Institute of Psychiatry, the University of Oslo, and the Norwegian Research Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research, which has 40 years of experience with population surveys.

We do need a population survey to be able to present some magnitude of the problems, although, in general, I am sceptical towards expressing as a number problems which exist in all degrees, because the decisive cut off points have to be chosen arbitrarily. Still, numbers are necessary because such numbers always calls attention to a problem.

But, in my opinion, it is equally important to educate people on the nature and intensity of gambling problems. Most people in general, most journalists and most politicians do not have the slightest idea of the desperation, the feelings of guilt and shame and the subjective feeling of loss of control that problem gamblers experience, which in most cases far exceeds the corresponding feelings of alcohol and drug addicts, conditions which at the moment are more perceived as a kind of disease. Most people have no idea that gambling addiction also leads to crime, suicide, divorces and so on, just like the well established addictions.

This weekend, I think one of our major newspapers present anonymous interviews with two of our patients, one middle-aged female slot machine player and one young male internet gambler. The gambling has led to catastrophies in the lives of both, and they sincerely feel the public ought to know.

The Australian Medical Association last year published a position statement on the "Health Effects of Problem Gambling", and I quote:

"... a public health issue.. the social, physical and mental health of people with problem gambling and of their families are often at risk as a result of reduced household income and associated social disruption. They may experience stress-related physical and psychological ill health. Other adverse effects include family breakdown, domestic violence, criminal activity, disruption to or loss of employment and social isolation. Additionally, problem gambling may compromise their capacity to afford necessities such as adequate nutrition, heating, shelter, transport, medications and health services."
It is obvious that gambling does supply money for beneficial purposes. The large negative side is not equally visible on the surface, but it is comprehensive and often tragic. We seem to have to go a long way before the negative consequences are acknowledged by the public. It is, however, of prime importance to make people recognize the tragedies.