H.K. to legalize soccer betting despite protests

HONG KONG, Nov. 26 Kyodo

The Hong Kong government decided Tuesday to legalize soccer betting to combat illicit gambling and to boost revenues for the public coffers, despite strong opposition from religious, educational and community groups.

The government said the problem of soccer gambling with illegal bookmakers and unauthorized offshore operators has been rampant, with the number of punters and the amount of bets involved increasing.

The Hong Kong community, however, is divided on the issue of legalizing soccer gambling.

Local groups opposing the plan slammed the new policy for being counterproductive, contending it is likely to lure more people to wager and bring negative impact on society, particularly on students and pathological gamblers.

They also criticized the government for legalizing soccer gambling in a bid to generate extra taxes to increase revenues for the public coffers that are suffering huge deficits.

An alliance of Christian groups, which collected more than 10,000 signatures petitioning against the authorization of soccer betting, staged a protest ahead of the government announcement Tuesday.

”We do not encourage gambling, including horse gambling,” Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho said, denying the accusations.

”The government’s policy on gambling is to restrict gambling opportunities to a limited number of authorized and regulated outlets only. The underlying rationale is not to encourage gambling,” Ho said.

The government proposed Tuesday to grant a sole license to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a nonprofit organization that operates the territory’s horse racing, to run authorized soccer gambling operations, initially for five years.

Ho said the government will get more than HK$1 billion (about US$128 million) taxes a year from an anticipated annual betting turnover of HK$30 billion.

The government is expected to introduce the necessary legislative amendments into the legislature early next year and authorized soccer betting could begin in July or August.

Under the government plan, people aged below 18 years will be banned from placing bets, entering any betting premises or opening betting accounts.

Betting on credit will also be prohibited to prevent excessive gambling in the territory, the government said.

An independent commission will be set up to regulate authorized soccer betting, while the licensed operator will be required to establish a fund to provide treatment and counseling services to pathological gamblers and to conduct research into gambling-related problems, the government said.

A government survey found the number of punters who engage in illicit soccer betting rose to 360,000 for the first seven months this year from 120,000 early last year.

The amount of illegal gambling money seized by police in the first half of this year was twice the sum confiscated last year as a whole.

”Illegal soccer gambling is invariably associated with other illegal activities, such as loan sharking and debt collection. It is also one of the major sources of funding for organized and serious criminal activities,” Ho said.

But lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong, who represents education professionals, argued against the new policy, saying that will give incentives for gangsters to infiltrate schools to collect bets from students as soccer is one of the most popular sports in Hong Kong.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Kyodo News International, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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