How the ‘Las Vegas of Italy’ is kicking its slot machine addiction

Once compared to Oxford, the university city of Pavia is now better known for gambling. These activists are fighting to change that

At the start of this year, Massimo was standing on a bridge determined to jump off. The 45-year-old had been struggling with gambling addiction since 2001.


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I started to play slot machines and video poker after the death of my father and ended up spending 5,000 a day, says the artisan fence-maker, from the city of Pavia in northern Italy. He was soon in debt to loan sharks and ended up stealing to fund his habit, including from his own mother, before considering suicide.

Now Massimo (not his real name) lives in La Casa del Giovane, a unit that houses 100 patients suffering from addictions. Around half of the cases involve gambling a symptom of an epidemic that has gripped Pavia for more than a decade.

For centuries the city was best known as Oxford on Ticino: it hosts one of the countrys most prestigious universities, founded in 1361, and a beautiful medieval castle. Built about 25 miles south of Milan on the ancient Via Francigena pilgrim route running from France to Rome, its historic centre is currently a candidate to become a Unesco world heritage site.

Anti-gambling activists from SenzaSlot (without slot machines): Mauro Vanetti, Ludovica Cassetta and Pietro Pace. Photograph: Marta Clinco

That reputation changed in 2013 when the city was identified as Italys capital of gambling, with a video or slot gambling machine for every 104 inhabitants. Although Italians never flocked there to gamble Pavia is no Vegas or Atlantic City local media nicknamed it the Italian Las Vegas.

We had realised something new was going on in 2004, when a 14-year-old boy brought in his father, who was showing clear signs of gambling addiction, recalls Simone Feder, a psychologist heading the facilitys addiction programme. Soon after, a very bourgeois-looking elderly couple asked for our help: the husband had gambled away all their money. Since then Feder says he has treated patients of all ages and walks of life.


When Europe gets it right

As a series of crises puts Europe under strain, some cities are fighting back with innovative solutions. From hyper-specialist shops beating the online threat in Berlin to the Bulgarian city reversing the country’s brain drain, from the Italian city finding new ways to tackle addiction to gambling to the Swedish town that has found innovative ways to combat extremism, we look at what European cities are doing to live better in our increasingly urban world.


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Pavia was shocked to hit the headlines this way, but not everybody simply accepted the news: a small group of residents self-organised into a grassroots movement called SenzaSlot (without slot machines) to fight the addiction. Their efforts are finally bearing fruit.

One day I went into a bar and I could not hear the noise of the spoon with which I was mixing sugar in my coffee because of the noise of coins being inserted into slot machines, says the groups Pietro Pace, a computer scientist. Inside there were people who were burning their entire salary.

Many residents blame the citys problems on the shift it has experienced since the 1970s, when its mechanical goods industry hit troubled times and its population fell from a high of around 87,000 (it is currently 72,000). Now the main sources of employment are the hospital and the university, and Pavia has become a dormitory city for Milan, the industrial powerhouse to its north.

On a cultural level, theres not much to do, says Giulia Cavaliere, an editor and writer who has lived in Pavia all her life. Its a wealthy city but the mentality here is rather closed. Theres just one movie theatre. The university is the only thing that is keeping the city alive, ensuring a constant flow of young people.

Pavia is wealthy, but its population has been shrinking since the 1970s. Photograph: Naeblys/Getty Images

SenzaSlot says these factors all came together to make Pavia particularly susceptible to gambling addiction. In the mid-2000s, after the national government removed restrictions, gaming machines began to spread through the citys bars and cafes. Suddenly residents would stumble upon a gambling opportunity every time they bought a cappuccino.

The city filled with slots and video poker machines, recalls Ludovica Cassetta, another SenzaSlot activist. It took a few years, but it was a constant process. We reached the point where bars looked like they were all about gambling, as if regular costumers didnt matter any more.

By 2013 Pavia had 647 slot machines and the highest per capita spending on gambling in Italy: 1,600 a year.

SenzaSlots first project was a website to map the few bars and cafes in the city that did not have slot machines. It now also provides gambling-free bars with a window sticker to highlight their lack of machines and runs events to inform residents, especially schoolchildren, about the dangers of gambling.

The group offers legal support to cafe owners who want to remove slot machines from their premises which is not as straightforward as it might sound. Pubs and cafes dont directly operate the machines, which are owned and managed by separate companies that give bar owners a share of revenues.

Installing a new slot machine is easy, but removing one can be hard: there is the loss of income (around 500 to 750 a month per machine) and the likelihood that the bar will have to pay a penalty (typically around 8,000 per machine) for breaking a contract.


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A bar in Pavia advertises its slot machines. Photograph: Marta Clinco

If you hold a pair of slot machines in your bar, they bring you 1,000 to 1,500 each month, which allows many to pay the rent, says Riccardo Bernasconi, owner of Sottovento, a slot-free snack bar. He says many bar owners agree to host the machines because the companies that operate them throw in credit card payment systems free of charge. Bernasconi has vowed never to host gaming machines, because most of his customers are students who he feels are too young to understand the dangers.

By contrast, Matteo Tacchinardi, owner of the century-old Bar Italia, has hosted gaming machines for more than a decade. He considered getting rid of them but says he could not afford the penalty. I would have to pay 8,000 for every machine, and its too much for me, he says. Nevertheless, upset at the sight of his customers throwing away their money, he refuses to change bills into coins if he knows they will be used in the machines.

But the SenzaSlot movement has made inroads, and now has the local authorities on its side. The former mayor of Pavia, Massimo Depaoli, introduced restrictions limiting when the machines can operate to eight hours a day from 10am to 1pm and 6pm to 11pm in an effort to reduce use by vulnerable groups such as children and older people.

The city council has also introduced a rule forbidding the opening of any new slot machines within 500 metres of a school, church or retirement community. Unfortunately, we couldnt touch the existing slot machines because we have to wait until the end of the contract, says Depaoli, who stepped down last month. But Pavia is not a very large city, so it is hard to find places that dont fall in the restricted areas.

The municipality has barred slot machines from premises it owns, and offered slot-free bars and cafes longer opening hours on public holidays as an incentive to make the shift.

The policies appear to be having an effect. By the end of last year, the number of gambling machines in Pavia had fallen from 642 to 547, with the per capita spend down 25% to 1,200.

The SenzaSlot activists, meanwhile, welcome the latest moves but say the wider fight is not yet won. True, our city is trying to limit slots, says Cassetta, but the fact is there are plenty of towns nearby that dont have any anti-slot regulations. People can just go there to gamble.

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Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

This post was curated & Posted using : RealSpecific

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