RIGA - With so many neon-lit casinos and slot-machine halls, a casual visitor to Riga may think he has found little Las Vegas. And just as that American city is often associated with sin, questions are often raised about the possible negative effects of the proliferation of gambling in Latvia.
Around the world, suspicions about the gaming business fall into two broad areas - that it damages individuals and families through addiction, and that it helps organized crime to launder money.
However, regulators in Latvia say these threats are less severe than one might think, due to the same risk calculations that gamblers themselves know well.
"Of course, any activity can be better managed, but in Latvia it's not a huge problem," says Signe Birne from the Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Inspectorate that polices venues.
For example, Birne says there are few cases of underage youths being caught in Latvian casinos. With operators paying a 50,000 lat (76,000 euro) annual fee just for running a gambling house and additional taxes for every machine or table, last year gaming operators paid 9.2 million lats to the state.
The risk of losing a license vastly outweighs the possible profits earned by admitting underage players, she stressed.
Furthermore, Birne explains that legislation restricting gambling to designated venues - taking it out of bars and cafes where people could "accidentally" stumble into it after a couple of whiskey-colas - should come before the Latvian Parliament this year. She adds that there are no statistics on the number of compulsive gamblers.
Inara Varpa, a Riga psychotherapist who specializes in treating various forms of addiction, agrees that no one has researched the big picture but claims that the problem is one that individuals, rather than society as a whole, must cope with.
"A bottle of alcohol or a slot machine are not evil in themselves. It's what people do with them that can be damaging," she says.
Most of Varpa's patients who have a gambling problem also have an addiction to alcohol or drugs. The problem is one of "emotional immaturity" - in needing a crutch of some sort to deal with life - rather than a desperate need to make money. Latvians are not a nation of gamblers she says, but some people do require treatment for their problems.
Varpa praised a recent initiative by the operators of the Klondaika slot-machine-hall chain to train staff to recognize problem gambling and provide literature to customers about the risks.
Birne states that Latvians gambled away 38.3 million lats in the first nine months of 2003, and this figure continues to rise each year. The present number, however, works out to just 15 lats per capita - the price of roughly two restaurant meals.
The relatively small per capita takings do not automatically mean that casinos are involved in other shady activities.
Viesturs Burkans, head of the money laundering section at the Latvian Prosecutor's Office, says that casino owners are "mostly clean." A small number are being investigated for tax evasion and other crimes, but for criminals to process dirty money through casinos and still make a profit would require obvious collaboration with the owners, who have too much to lose.
"They would spoil their reputation forever, and they would be shut out of the market," Burkans says.
Not surprisingly, the gambling industry also plays down claims that it damages society.
"We don't see a problem. What we offer is recreation," says Girts Ludus, head of the Latvian Association of Gaming Business, a registered lobby. "The business is legal and transparent and no business in Latvia is controlled like this one."
Ludus says that for all the taxes it pays and its benefits to tourism, the government should support gambling rather than constantly change the rules. There have been 14 major amendments to the respective legislation since 1994, he says.
He pointed out that by law 80 percent of all turnover has to be returned to players but did not deny that casinos are still profitable ventures.