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Anne Lindner

Internet Gambling Blamed for Suicide

12 April 2002

Debt from compulsive gambling on Internet casinos led a British man to commit suicide in January. Mario Opalka, a 44 year-old from Blackburn, Lancashire, had used 19 credit cards to acquire more than £53,000 in online gambling debt.

This week, U.K. newspapers are reporting that the man's son is asking the area's MP, Jack Staw, to do something to prevent others from facing similar situations.

"There have been some studies comparing death rates in certain locales that have a lot of gambling versus death rates in others and suicide rates in one versus suicide rates in the other… but none of those have shown an association."

- Richard Labrie
Harvard Medical School

"I will not rest until I find out why these credit card companies handed so much money out to my dad without realizing he didn't have any in the first place," Jonathon Opalka told the Guardian in a story printed April 8. "It is an absolute disgrace that someone like my dad, who needed help, was just given an even bigger push towards taking his own life."

Mario Opalka, who was a council planning officer in Blackburn, told his son two weeks before his death that he had run up the large gambling debt. Jonathon Opalka said his father's gambling addiction started after Mario Opalka's wife died of cancer in September 2000. The son also said that his father had been diagnosed as a manic depressive and had tried to kill himself twice during his wife's illness.

The Lancashire coroner's office said Mario Opalka had left a note indicating that the gambling debt was the reason for his suicide.

Richard Labrie, the associate director of Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions, said it is difficult to tell how often compulsive gambling leads to suicide. Part of the reason, he said, is that death records, at least in the United States, typically do not reveal the reason the person took his or her life.

"There is no good data," he said. "There have been some studies comparing death rates in certain locales that have a lot of gambling versus death rates in others and suicide rates in one versus suicide rates in the other… but none of those have shown an association."

That Internet casinos and sports books are an outlet for addictive gamblers to wager in private is a reason the business should be regulated by First World countries, such as the United States, said Keith Furlong, deputy director of the Interactive Gaming Council. The IGC is a trade association for the I-gaming industry that promotes a checklist of standards for casino and betting sites.

"I guess the issue here is how do you get help to somebody like this," Furlong said. "Currently the industry is unregulated, for the most part, and there's no taxes or contributions made to causes such as problem gambling groups. There's a lot of money being bet on the Internet, and just statistically speaking, there's going to be some percentage of that population that are going to have problems with gambling."

An important step, Furlong said, is for gambling sites to be proactive about steering compulsive gamblers toward programs like Gamblers Anonymous. Some online casinos have already begun putting links to problem gambling help groups as a means to inch compulsive gamblers toward treatment. Sunny Group's online casinos, for instance, include a link to GA on the front page of each casino site. Also, the company issues a weekly newsletter that features articles by "Miss Hope," a recovering addicted gambler who has decided to make herself available, via e-mail, as a shoulder for other sufferers to lean on.

Nicole Greene, Sunny Group's public and media relations manager, said the company found Miss Hope through its systems of checks to prevent problem gamblers from wagering on Sunny sites. Once identified, Miss Hope was locked out of those wagering sites.

"We approached her and said, 'You need to get well, you need to get help and get better,'" Greene said.

Miss Hope joined Gamblers Anonymous and has been writing for Sunny Group's weekly newsletter since April 2001. Greene said Miss Hope gives compulsive gamblers someone to talk to who knows exactly what they are going through. If problem gamers don't seek out Miss Hope, that doesn't necessarily mean they will fall through the cracks at Sunny Group's sites, which include and When a player registers, he or she is asked whether a Sunny representative may call his or her home phone number. If a player shows signs of problem gaming, like using numerous credit cards, changing credit cards frequently or often requesting cash back, Greene said they to approach the person gently, asking if he or she could have a gambling problem.

"The ones that we have permission to call them at home, we do," she said. "Casino Fortune believes that gambling is a source of entertainment; it's not to be abused. We are willing to do all it takes to help compulsive gamblers out there."

Jonathon Opalka said as his father's addiction grew more serious, he took out more credit cards to finance his gambling. Mario Opalka's collection of cards eventually totaled 19, each one with a limit of £6,000. The younger Opalka said his father's debt has been lowered to £15,000 by the company that ran the sites Mario Opalka used.

In the land-based casino industry, credit gambling is highly regulated, Furlong said. While the IGC code of conduct dictates that casino sites do not accept credit betting, credit cards remain a popular and easy way to pay for online betting. Credit betting is especially harmful to compulsive gamblers because even as they dive further into debt, their disease makes them believe a big pay-off is just around the corner. Furlong said problem gaming will continue to be an issue of concern for the industry as it moves forward.

"Stories like this, they touch people in different ways," he said. "You're talking about a human being whose life is now ruined and whose family is devastated by gambling."

Internet Gambling Blamed for Suicide is republished from
Anne Lindner
Anne Lindner