Indecent proposal: allowing 18-year-olds to gamble a bad idea

May 25, 2022 | 04:44 pm PT
Phan Tat Duc
When I read that HCMC wants to let 18-year-old "adults" into casinos, I remembered my late uncle, a Vietnam War veteran.

One rainy night five years ago, he left home, leaving his mentally disabled son afflicted by Agent Orange.

His son-in-law was a gambler. He was in so deep that he turned to loan sharks for cash, borrowing so much he could not pay them back. Gangsters visited by uncle's house and threatened the entire family. When my uncle finally had enough, he chose to commit suicide.

These kinds of stories are not unheard of in our country. Gambling addiction is real and it is vicious. It's all too easy to get lost in the sounds of music, the cheers of fellow gamblers, of shuffling cards and rolling dice. It brings out the worst in people. Once the money starts to flow, there is little that can stop it.

A gambler will eventually take his or her family down with them, sooner or later. We Vietnamese are taught to cover for our family and the people we love. Gamblers will use that love to bring the people they care about to ruin.

Ho Chi Minh City now wants to allow casinos in major tourist destinations and hotels with five stars and above. Those aged 18 and above, who are financially capable, will be welcomed. Policymakers say it would encourage investment in tourism, especially world-class amusement parks.

I don't think it's an appropriate proposal. First, 18-year-olds aren't exactly known for their self-restraint, not to mention having enough money to actually gamble. Second, they are barely adults. They haven't had enough experience in life to know how destructive addiction can be, how easy it is to get sucked irrevocably into a destructive habit.

It would be naive to assume that our current policies would resolve such issues, because the law says only those with at least VND10 million ($431.50) in monthly income can play, and there is an implicit assumption that everything will be fine. It won't. Vietnam's management in many fields has been consistently weak.

For example, on Phu Quoc Island, there are always people to help one with "special services" to enter casinos. Eighteen-year-olds would be easy prey.

Allowing teenagers to gamble in casinos would also go against general international trends. U.S. laws in most states, including Nevada and its gambling haven of Las Vegas, has minimum age of 21 for casino entry, even though federal law allows 18-year-olds to do so.

In Southeast Asia, large economies that allow casinos, like Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, all impose a minimum age of 21 for entry. Thailand, a tourism powerhouse, bans casinos entirely.

Maybe, just maybe, allowing 18-year-olds to enter casinos can help localities achieve investment targets. But have policymakers bothered to quantify the social consequences that follow such a decision: broken homes and wasted futures. Is this an "investment" we need? Is it worth it?

I’m not opposed to casinos, but Vietnam should not allow 18-year-olds to gamble. We need to focus instead on teaching financial management skills and improving awareness of gambling, as also improve management capabilities of authorities.

For example, a citizen database system could check if someone is qualified to play at casinos. Maybe, just maybe, we can start allowing 18-year-olds to enter if we can get rid of usurious loan sharks. Even if this were to happen, and it is a big if, the dark side of gambling can never be made light of.

The guns and bombs of a prolonged war could not take out my uncle, but someone’s gambling led him to his untimely end. To this day, we have not found his body.

*Phan Tat Duc has a Masters degree in Public Policy at the University of Adelaide. The opinions expressed are his own.

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