Decay and Denial in an Old Romanian Spa Town

Diana Mesesan

Addiction? Giving a name to a growing problem among Romanian gamblers

Gamblers wait for the results of a quick-fire lottery in a bar in the western Romanian town of Buzias. Photo: Diana Mesesan

It’s June 6, the day after local elections, and the sleepy former spa town of Buzias in western Romania has been woken from its slumber by news that a new mayor has been elected. Something to talk about, locals say, but not much cause for hope.

I have come to interview some of the young people at the Buzias Re-education Centre, one of two youth detention centres in Romania, for a story on how the state and the gambling industry are tackling the problem of gambling addiction, which drove some of the inmates here to theft.

Afterwards, I wander the streets of Buzias. Old decaying buildings bear plaques that testify to past glories. “This building hosted Franz Joseph, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his court, during a military maneuvre in 1898,” reads one.

I am drawn back to the present by a bar that promises cheap beer and sports betting. Inside, three men are playing the slot machines, but the real attraction is River Six Balls, an online lottery with results drawn every few minutes.

The three slot machines are rented from a subsidiary of the Austrian gambling company Novomatic. The rest of the gambling apparatus belongs to River Bet, part of the Metropolis group owned by two Romanian investors and which, according to authorities, has debts of millions of euros to the state.

The speed of the reward determines the addictive potential of a betting device. The faster the potential payout, the more addictive they become. Betting shops now offer live lotteries, churning out results in a matter of minutes, not days.

The clients are men. Almost all of them work at a plant producing German car parts some 30 kilometres outside of Buzias. They are not from here, but from the city of Ploiesti in southern Romania and have moved for work. They earn about 450 euros per month; not bad for Romania, but by no means a lot of money. River Six Balls, however, offers payouts of up to 9,500 euros.

A portly man, who appears to be in his early twenties, cracks jokes, mainly aimed at a colleague who is frittering away his wages on the slot machines. “Slot machines are magnetic,” says the portly man. “You try to stay away but you can’t.”

Another man hints at his addiction, but the word is left unsaid. They know they spend too much time and too much money gambling. But they don’t have a name for it.

“Have you heard about gambling addiction?” I ask. “Gambling addiction?” one of them replies. “I heard it mentioned on TV once.”