For the first time in Uganda, young people are growing up in a society where different types of gambling exist, and gambling venues are easily accessible. With the rapidly growing media sector, the gambling industry especially the sports betting companies have taken advantage to heavily advertise and promote their activities. Gambling, once considered being a sin and vice is now generally perceived as a harmless adult entertainment and has become mainstream in our society. Gambling has become not only a popular leisure activity but also a huge source of revenue for government, according to Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) 2015 report UGX 11.1 billion was collected in 2013/14 from the gambling industry which was ten times more than what was collected in 2002/3 at UGX 0.24 billion. The rapid growth of gambling poses a number of social and public health challenges especially to young people in Uganda. Health professionals and others working with adolescents will require more knowledge and resources in order to better respond to new and emerging needs caused by excessive betting.
According to the Lotteries and Gaming Act 2016, gambling is illegal for persons under the age of 18, but there is a growing public concern about the increasing number of minors who are constantly engaging in sports betting and other forms of illegal gambling. With increased exposure to, and availability of regulated and unregulated forms of gambling, including the recent emergence of online betting, young people even students are succumbing to the temptation and pressure to engage in these activities. Many youth are often influenced by their peers who are already taking part in betting and they present betting as exciting and rewarding practice, the competitive nature of young people and the desire to belong tend to deter them from sharing their disastrous betting experiences. Uganda`s media is flooded with adverts and promotions which portray sports betting as an easy way of making money and getting rich with less hustle. Today most of the radio and TV stations plus print media have programs which are sponsored by betting companies and this is a direct way to promote their activities among the audience which is the young people. This is more common for sports programs, during these programs little is mentioned about who is allowed to bet, the possible dangers of betting and where people with problem gambling can get help. With the increasing level of youth unemployment in the country, many unemployed youth have restored to betting as way to get quick money. Though betting and other gambling activities have known social ills to the community little has been done to create awareness on possible dangers of engaging in these activities. Many young people engage in betting not knowing the possible reputation of the practice.
Data from Economic Research Policy Centre (ERPC) report of 2016 on the social impact of gambling in Uganda indicated that a large number of young people who frequent gambler were reported to have lost time from school or work. Those who gamble excessively spend hours in internet cafes placing bets, checking on previous performance of the playing teams and getting betting tips from the so called seniors. This means they are left with limited time to concentrate on their work or studies. This implies that involvement in gambling is associated with productivity losses at work, and poor performance in school for the case of students. This has long term effects like increased likelihood of being fired from work or dropping out from school. Due to the addictive nature of the activity many skip school or work for betting. Data from ERPC indicates that hundreds of students are dropping out of school after failing to pay their tuition fees following losses in sports-betting related incidences. Young people who bet thinks they can double their tuition/school fees/keep up money given to them by their parents if they bet. But in most cases they lose and are more likely to drop out of school. Some sports betting companies do not mind when underage youth bet which gives access to students into this risky practice.
Young people who engage in betting lose large sums of money; students have lost tuition/school fees and those who are employed loss their income on daily basis to betting companies. From the 2016 ERPC report, about 41 percent of frequent gamblers spend UGX 10,000 weekly. This has resulted into financial difficulties and bankruptcy among employed youth. This has further resulted into increased delinquency and criminal behavior, theft and cheating among young people especially in urban areas where betting outlets are easily accessible.
The youth in Uganda who engage in excessive gambling including online betting are abandoning participating in productive activities. Youth who are expected to be industrious and innovative to take Uganda into middle economy have ditched their daily economic activities resolving to spend their entire life savings in sports betting with a prospect of winning. This has emerged as both a rural and urban phenomenon and has increased idleness, diverting the people who are expected to contribute to economic and social development to become addicted to hoping of winning bets.
Young people with gambling related problems are also likely to have disrupted relationships with family and peers. This is common with those who have lost school fees/tuition in gambling and those who spend excessive time in betting have lost trust of their parents. Some have been forced to leave their parents’ home, others have lost support from their parent which have forced them out of school.
Rates of suicide cases among young people who gamble excessively have been increasing for the last five years. After losing and fearing to face their parents to ask for more money they feel depressed and think of committing suicide or turn to use drugs. People who have threatened suicide or hurt themselves in the past are also more at risk and they need psychological support from trained mental health experts who are very few in Uganda.
The increasing number of young people engaging in sports betting has led them into risky behaviors including unprotected sex which expose them to sexual transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. This is more common when young people win bets, due to excitement they are more likely to engage into unsafe/unprotected sex behaviors. Or when some loss due to disappointment they are depressed which force them into risky behaviours. Also many young people who bet excessively feel stressed, anxious and depressed this force them into practices like alcohol and drug abuse as a way of relieve mental pain caused by gambling. This puts their life in dangers like mental illness and even death.
In 2016 parliament passed the Lotteries and Gaming Act to regulate the rapidly growing industry according to this legislation the National Lotteries and Gaming Board is responsible for ensuring all actors follow the law and the negative impacts are controlled. The Act also prohibits gambling companies from operating in areas near schools. But unfortunately up to now less is being done by the board to ensure young people are protected against the negative impacts of their engagement in gambling activities like sports betting and slotting machines. At institutional level, there is no proper response program or training given to counselors to help young people with problem gambling. There is need for coordinated efforts between government, public health organizations, betting companies and other stakeholders to respond to the growing social ills related to gambling.
By Ssekajoolo Mathew
The writer is a social worker and advocate for health equity and social justice.