Between five and 10 million Kenyans are feared to be addicted to betting with the problem likely to worsen.
Betting, in the gambling sense, is a human trait. Even in the Bible, soldiers bet on Jesus’s clothes by casting lots as they crucified him. Human beings are always attracted to the unknown, the mystery, risk, and the game of chance. After all, life is often a gamble.
Betting can be fun and is, indeed, entertainment, but it can be as addictive as narcotics. But of concern here is ‘problem betting’ — when people cannot control their betting behaviour, so that it becomes addictive.
Problem betting could be taking root in Kenya for several reasons. Firstly, unlike in drug addiction, the country lacks structures for identifying, mapping and mitigating problem betting. We have trained drug addiction therapists, counsellors and psychologists in schools, colleges, hospitals and even some villages but no experts to deal with this emerging social concern.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in Kenya, betting is largely online. Online betting is on the rise worldwide thanks to the internet. In developed countries though, betting is still largely done in betting houses, where admission is strictly controlled. Yet, even in countries with highly developed social response structures, betting addiction is a big problem, especially among low-income groups.
Now when several betting services are put in a smartphones, it is made easier for the jobless and even some gainfully employed people to engage in the practice. Improved internet services makes it even easier to bet in the comfort of one’s bedroom, matatu, classroom or while performing other chores.
Experts point out that the real-time nature of online gaming increases the likelihood of betting addiction. This is part of ‘virtual socialisation’: Our children are growing up thinking there is no other reality but the online one.
Online sport betting, in particular, appeals to the youth’s imagination. Rich betting companies invest in carefully woven marketing gimmicks with mind control techniques. And with the mass media razzmatazz, we are creating a society of pathological punters.
Thirdly, poverty and joblessness contribute to the problem. Although there are some punters from the middle class, betting is traditionally associated with the poor. In the West, problem gambling is associated with minority groups; in the US, it is related to the LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender), black, immigrants and Latinos.
Research shows that men are more likely to get addicted to the vice than women because, apparently, the former are susceptible to risk taking and find losing and winning large sums of money thrilling.
The socioeconomic dangers of problem betting are real and call for urgent policy and institutional responses.
Betting has little economic outcome. It is not about production but throwing money around like beanbags, only that some end up with all the bags of money. While probability and number computation is a key component of business prediction, these are only used to enhance production.
Betting may create a few jobs and enable a few people to buy private jets but the reality is that many able-bodied people are diverting their disposable incomes and resources, such as time, into an essentially unproductive endeavour. Youths abandon work to bet online in toilets.
Getting this colossal amount, seemingly unexpectedly, cements the futile get-rich-quick notion. The prospects of hitting a Sh300 million jackpot without breaking a sweat will certainly drive many a youth into delirious expectations, creating the illusion that working is a futile activity.
Socially, cases abound of breadwinners betting their families into poverty. Data is scanty but anecdotal evidence of broken families due to betting is in plenty. Children from such families are likely to fall into the vice.
Problem betting, like other vices, predisposes young people to other antisocial behaviours like aggression, crime and drug abuse.
We should not ban betting like our neighbours, Uganda, have. It can be a worthwhile after-work recreation. However, uncontrolled betting is disastrous as it leaves the society poorer.
To curtail problem betting, there is a need to build capacity. There are preciously few personnel specialised in this area, creating a need to train therapists. From what experts say, we are past the prevention stage. We urgently need a policy to control betting that insists on responsible gambling.
We must, however, begin by recognising that a major problem exists in the society.