Internet betting has opponents worried that people could gamble away the family home without havingto leave it, as WARREN GAMBLE reports.

Hey Mon! Our casino friends dey tell us, we're so bright and colourful at our tables you'll be coming away from Jamaica Bay with Caribbean coins and a tan."

So goes one of the beguiling introductions to the world of internet gambling where, as a zany Jamaican host tells you, "paradise is a download away."

Across cyberspace, a Caribbean company associated with the Christchurch Casino group has created Kiwi Casino, with graphics set in "a mountainside plateau in the wilds of beautiful New Zealand." Because of the uncharted environment in New Zealand, the site does not accept New Zealand betters.

Elsewhere, feverpitchexchange.com, which has links to a New Zealand sports news site, gives you the chance to take on other punters over almost anything - from the Tri-Nations rugby to whether Christine Rankin will win her court case.

Soon you may not even need a computer to get a slice of the betting action - interactive television could provide the same opportunities.

The bottom line beneath the slick graphics and the introductory betting fund offers is that losing your money has never been easier. A few mouse clicks, a credit card number, and you're in business at virtual blackjack, poker, and roulette tables from the comfort of your own home.

Fewer than 2 per cent of New Zealand adults bet on the estimated 1400-plus internet gaming sites. But as the number and variety of such games spreads, odds are they will attract more punters, as home computer-use increases and people become more relaxed about revealing their credit card numbers.

Whether New Zealand should fight it or try to control it is now being debated within the Government, as part of the wider gaming review likely to result in new legislation, and probably a new controlling body, early next year.

At stake is a potentially lucrative industry and potentially large social risks. Problem gambling experts say children are most at risk from the emerging online betting industry, with the thrill of making money adding spice to addictive games. And unlike casinos or hotels, age limits are extremely difficult to enforce through the internet.

The gaming review, including the vexed issues of how to control the spread of gaming machines and what to do about internet gaming, is set to become a divisive political issue here.

Political sources say Internal Affairs Minister George Hawkins is pro-gaming, and has the support of other cabinet colleagues for a more liberalised approach.

Other Labour MPs are opposed to the expansion of gambling opportunities, arguing that the existing moratorium on new casinos would be undermined by a regulated internet gaming regime.

Tim Barnett, a Labour MP with five years on select committees dealing with gaming issues, says that with the casino ban likely to remain he would be opposed to adding a whole new form of gambling through the internet.

Coalition partner the Alliance is extremely wary about internet gambling and wants more information about Australia's decision to ban online casinos.

In a landmark decision two weeks ago, Australia's Federal Parliament voted for a law banning online casino operators from offering services to Australians, from either Australian or offshore bases. After intense lobbying, racing and sports betting were exempted from the ban.

The Australian law, which takes effect in six months, also aims to make overseas operators comply by making any debts incurred by Australian punters legally unenforceable. Punters who lose at virtual casinos could tell their credit card companies not to honour their debts.

The theory is that, with such a disincentive, casino operators will quickly refuse to accept Australian betters.

The move will stymie an online casino based in the Northern Territory. It is also likely to upset operators such as Kerry Packer and bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse, the man banned from racecourses after the Fine Cotton scandal, who both have interests in Vanuatu-based internet gambling sites.

In the United States, the legality of internet gaming is unclear, although some states, such as Nevada, are pushing to set up a regulated online gambling system, which backers say would net lucrative taxes.

Alliance leader Jim Anderton says a cabinet committee wants more information on the Australian model before making recommendations. The Alliance has major concerns about the spread of internet gambling, he says.

"Someone can sit at home and gamble away their house without ever leaving it. You could have your 18-year-old or your 10-year-old playing."

Anderton says the Alliance is cautious about any move to expand gambling, and "ultra cautious" about internet gaming.

In the past he has voted against casinos, and even lotto. It was not a wowser approach but rather a reaction to the social risks involved, particularly for those who can least afford to lose money gambling.

At present only the TAB offers internet gambling in New Zealand, following its 1998 dispensation allowing it to provide sports betting. Its internet site, which lets punters join up in minutes, accounts for only 3 per cent of its business, but is growing rapidly. Since it was introduced in 1998, internet turnover has increased from $5 million to $30 million.

Casino operators have been keen to expand online but are hamstrung by the existing laws, which do not expressly permit New Zealand-based internet sites. But it is not an offence for New Zealanders to gamble on overseas-based sites.

The Christchurch casino sees internet gaming as a strong business opportunity and wants the new laws to license web-based operators in New Zealand in a regime with strong player protection.

In its submission to the gaming review, the company said its preference was to base the Kiwi Casino site in New Zealand, whether or not New Zealanders were allowed to use it, but instead it has been forced to invest offshore.

The Problem Gambling Foundation's research director, Sean Sullivan, says New Zealand-based internet gaming will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of people who develop serious problems.

Few people are accessing sites in small island nations across the world because of fears about credit card security and the unknown fairness of the games, he says. But if New Zealand has a fair game regime, that would be far more attractive to casual users, who could play as long as their credit cards allowed, without safeguards such as host responsibility programmes.

For children, particularly teenagers, the dangers are multiplied.

"Young people are more open to the attractions," says Sullivan. "They don't have the experience to know if you win once it's by chance. They think it could change their life.

"If you develop a problem at a young age, you have a lifetime of causing problems to yourself and others."

A South Australian independent MP elected on a "no pokies" platform, Nick Xenophon, says the Australian ban on internet gaming followed surveys showing an overwhelming majority - more than 90 per cent - did not want it.

A 1999 report showed Australians were the world's highest per capita gamblers, with 290,000 having a significant problem, losing an average of $15,000 a year.

Recent figures show Australians lose $13.3 billion a year on gambling, including $7.65 billion on poker machines alone (compared with the $1.3 billion lost by New Zealand gamblers).

Against that background the Federal Parliament had to act, Xenophon says. He believes the internet ban turned the tables on offshore casino operators by effectively killing debts run up on Australian credit cards.

But the onus is on punters who have lost money to tell their credit card companies not to honour debts to offshore casinos.

While some will get around the disincentive by transferring money to offshore accounts, or getting an overseas credit card, the difficulties involved should stop impulsive online gamblers.

"My message to New Zealand legislators is don't be mugs," Xenophon says. "Don't settle for the vested interest of online gambling hubs."

But the chief executive of the Casino Control Authority, Trevor Garrett, says a regulated approach to internet gaming here is the sensible option, even for gambling opponents.

Setting up fair games with built-in safeguards, such as self-imposed betting stake limits and the ability to press a button for self-bans, will answer many concerns, he says. A complaints system could also be established.

He says the Australian ban could be circumvented fairly easily through having overseas accounts.

"Internet gaming is a bit like saying to people in their own homes that they can't play matchstick poker. You can oppose it, but you can't stop it."