Their symptoms are similar to those of alcoholics and junkies though they employ a drug that costs far more than cocaine. For the roughly 150,000 people addicted to gambling in Germany, money is a means to an end.
An addicted gambler always goes back for more
Pathological gamblers are fully absorbed by their addiction. They feel like they've lost control when they can't play and become irritable and nervous. They'll risk anything for a game and often end up abandoned, alone and in debt, in Germany to the tune of €25,000 ($33,400) on average.
The health ministry in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state, added pathological gambling to its addiction program in 2001, leading to an increase in the therapy, outreach and treatment options. But in recognizing the problem the state put itself in an odd dilemma, according to Marcus Nebel, who works for the Catholic charity Caritas and focuses on gambling addicts.
Germany's states make millions from the national lottery.
On the one hand, the state holds a lottery and profits from various betting games that bring in around €4 billion ($5 billion) of much needed revenue every year, Nebel said. On the other hand, North Rhine-Westphalia has a responsibility to protect its residents' health.
Loosing it all
Hermann, from Cologne, is one of them. At the age of 16 he started playing gambling machines with friends in snack bars and pubs. Over time he moved on to gambling halls. For 13 years he was addicted to gambling for high stakes requiring him to work 300 hours a month to finance his addiction.
Initially, Hermann was attracted by the prospect of winning money. But that gradually changed.
"It's like how you start drinking a glass of beer because it tastes good … and later on you drink because you need it," he said. "Later on I didn't play for the money, but rather not to have to see the reality I was living."
A gambling addict can't leave a casino until she's spent all her money.
Hermann was also egged on by the feeling of power that gambling gave him and the illusion that allowed him to forget all his problems. No win was big enough to convince him he'd played enough. He couldn't leave a gambling hall without emptying his pockets. Finally, his salary could no longer pay for his addiction. Then he did what so many gambling addicts do: He started lying to friends and relatives to get access to money.
In addition to his increasing financial problems he lost contact with his partner, though she did his laundry, kept up the household and continued to care for him despite his inability to care for her anymore.
It took him six or seven years to realize he was an addict. Not until the birth of their child did Hermann succeed in emerging from his addiction and starting to deal with it. He talked to his bank about his problem and arranged to reschedule payment of his debts at the same time as joining a self-help group. He hasn't gambled since his last relapse seven years ago.
Gambling machines are nearly an obligatory part of the furniture in German snack bars.
But in North Rhine-Westphalia, the cards remain stacked against addicts. Gambling machine operators have established a strong lobby to influence state politics. Regulations on gambling machines have recently been changed to cut the length of a game from 12 to three seconds, according to Marcus Nebel.
The bar will also be raised on the maximum players can lose per hour on gambling machines, Nebel said. While the limit used to be €58, in the future players may be able to continue shelling out money games until they're €95 in the whole within an hour.
"You can be sure that this change … will result in a larger number of clients seeking help," he added.