Silvio Berlusconi's last government authorised the new video-poker saloons in 2011. A contest to decide who should get the licences is due to be held by the end of January.
The non-party government of Mario Monti made a last-ditch bid to suspend the competition by another six months. But a clause inserted in the 2013 budget was thrown out in committee as lawmakers raced to clear the way for the dissolution of parliament last Saturday.
Under pressure to boost state revenues and pay off Italy's huge public debts, successive governments have relaxed the country's once-strict gambling laws. The first significant change was in 1994 when scratch-card lotteries were legalised.
But it was not until the mid-2000s that gambling mania really seized Italy. By 2010, according to figures compiled by Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, Italy's per capita spending on betting was the fifth highest in the world, excluding countries such as Monaco, where gambling is a central part of the economy.
Simone Feder, a psychologist and adviser to the juvenile court in Milan, also works with a Roman Catholic church-run refuge in Pavia that caters to, among others, addicts of all kinds. He remembers 2004 as "the year the punters began knocking at the door".
Among those staying at the refuge before Christmas was Caterina Rossini whose real name the Guardian agreed to conceal on grounds of privacy. The wife of a Turin shopkeeper, she described how she had been reduced to penury by her husband's compulsion. "He had been gambling for years, but I didn't realise it," she said. "At the start, he went to casinos and played the lottery. But about 10 years ago, he switched to scratch cards.
"I'd say things like: 'This month, we don't seem to have as much cash as I thought.' But I had no idea how much he was spending." By the time she found out, his losses came to €60,000. There was no option but to sell the house they owned to meet his debts. Once they had paid off the mortgage, there was nothing left. At the age of 50, she was planning to start work as a cleaner to earn the rent.
"In a final, terrible gesture, [my husband] stole my jewellery and sold it," she said. He had made €3,800 – and spent it all on scratch-cards.
Her husband was one of several compulsive gamblers in her immediate neighbourhood, Rossini said. "There are a lot of men who go around saying: 'My wife works. I gamble.'"
In November, a bar owner in the town of Cremona, south of Milan, won national notoriety after it was reported she had ordered the removal of gambling machines from her premises, foregoing a monthly income of some €2,700. Monica Pavesi was quoted as saying: "I couldn't bear any longer to see people ruining themselves in that way."
Feder said that, despite the rise in cases of pathological gambling, "it is still not recognised [by the authorities] as an addiction". Sufferers could not, as a result, be treated in the national health system.
Because of that, there is no reliable estimate of the number of addicts. A religious NGO, Associazione Libera, has put the figure at 800,000.
Earlier this month, officials in predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol reported that the number of compulsive gamblers who had sought help in the province had risen by 76% in 12 months. The figure was released as the authorities there announced a ban on slot machines within 300 metres of "sensitive locations" such as schools, youth clubs, retirement homes and hospitals.
A spokesman for the gambling industry's representative body said it was preparing to challenge the order, describing it as "a way of fuelling illegal gaming". The industry is, however, co-operating with new measures introduced by the government in Rome which will require gambling machines to carry "health warnings" and an indication of the odds against winning.
According to the latest estimates, the total amount gambled in Italy has dipped slightly this year as the recession and tax increases ordered by the Monti government have bitten into household budgets. But until 2011, the industry appeared to be immune to the effects of the eurozone crisis. On the contrary, said Feder, there was evidence to suggest that many Italians had reacted to a downturn in their disposable incomes by turning to gambling in the belief they could make up the difference with winnings.
The same conviction was held by a lot of young people.
In June, he carried out a survey of almost 2,000 secondary school students in Pavia. He found that 5% of those interviewed had a close relative who was a habitual gambler.
But the most disturbing conclusion, he said, came when the teenagers — average age 15 – were asked why people gambled. By far the most common response — given by 57% of interviewees – was "to get rich".
"In fact, of course, it is always the 'bank' that wins," he said.
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