This week, Gail discusses the epidemic of gambling in America in the first part of a two-part series.

Dear Readers,

I'm not sure what this means, but I thought I'd share it with you: We are increasingly becoming a nation of gamblers.

A survey by Harrah's found that one out of every four Americans over the age of 21 (26 percent) had gambled at a casino in 2002. This figure is up a million and a half over the previous year. According to the American Gaming Association (search), last year the number rose to 53.4 million people — a gain of more than 2 million.

Money spent on gambling alone (excluding food, rooms and entertainment) hit $27 billion (gross) last year — twice as much as 10 years ago.

That's just counting the money bet at casinos. When you consider all of the other forms of gambling available — state lotteries, horse and dog tracks, cruise ships, highway video poker machines and the Internet — the number is significantly higher. Ed Loomey, head of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling (search), said gambling is "flourishing" and puts the number at $900 billion.

The National Council on Problem Gambling (search) estimates 65 percent of American adults have gambled in some form or another in the past year. Though there are no hard data, NCPG Executive Director Keith Whyte said anecdotal evidence suggests the frequency — how often an individual bets — is going up. In other words, according to Whyte, some people "who used to gamble monthly are now gambling weekly and using more types of gambling activities. "

"Gamble" is not a word you'll find the industry using — or governments, for that matter. States that sponsor lotteries call it "playing." Casinos euphemistically refer to the activities that take place on their premises as "gaming." Both convey the idea that gambling is just an innocuous way to add some fun and maybe a little excitement to your life.

In fact, Harrah's survey concludes casino gamblers are a "fun-loving group." They are more likely to travel, eat out, engage in entertainment activities, and are more devoted fans of virtually every sport except professional wrestling. They also have higher household incomes, consider themselves more savvy about investing, and are more likely to pay off their credit card balances each month.

But the NCPG and the Council on Compulsive Gambling estimate that for around 5 percent of people, gambling is not merely an amusing pastime. For these individuals, it is an addiction as powerful as drugs or alcohol — something to keep in mind in light of the expansion of gambling outlets.

This past summer, Pennsylvania lawmakers blessed the legalization of video poker machines. Proposition 68 on the California ballot next month would open the door for casinos to locate on property outside of Indian reservations. The Internet has made it possible to gamble 24/7 without ever leaving your home or office.

NCPG's Whyte said, "America has always been a nation of gamblers," pointing out that when the earliest settlers chose to leave Europe and come here they were gambling on a better way of life. Both he and Loomey stressed that neither organization is "anti-gambling" — provided it's done responsibly.

What the two are concerned about is the proliferation of gambling outlets and the lack of government help for the minority who meet the American Psychiatric Association's criteria for "problem gambler." (Take the test by answering ten questions on the NCPG's Web site: www. ncpgambling.org.)

At the very least, states can be accused of having a conflict of interest when it comes to gambling. On the one hand, they make it seem as if buying lotto tickets is a civic duty, a way to support senior citizens or education. But, let's call a spade a spade: Lotteries are big businesses for states. You might even say some states are addicted to them because lotto or scratch-n-win games contribute significant amounts to state coffers.

Yet, according to Whyte, a number of "states that are making billions off of gambling have been unwilling or unable to develop resources to help people." Nevada's Council on Compulsive Gambling, which provides counseling for problem gamblers, is entirely funded by companies in the gambling industry. While Pennsylvania has earmarked $1.5 million to address the problem of gambling addiction and Oregon spends $2 million per year, according to Whyte, "most states aren't doing anything to reduce the social impact. And that ends up costing taxpayers money."

Hmm. You mean they didn't mention that?

The 1999 report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (search) found that every compulsive gambler costs his state $1,200 per year by adding to the workload of the judicial and health-care systems. Among the social costs: an above-average rate of bankruptcy. According to Loomey, in the New Jersey county where Atlantic City is located, the bankruptcy rate is 71 percent higher than in the rest of the state.

As with other addictions, the compulsive gambler's problem takes a toll on the family and his work life. Studies have linked problem gambling to domestic violence, child neglect/abuse, and a higher divorce rate. "Compulsive gambling destroys the family," said Loomey.

Problem gamblers also develop health problems — particularly mental health problems — similar to those associated with other types of addictive behavior. Depression is common.

According to Whyte, "The problem is that the substance gamblers abuse is money." In order to abuse alcohol or drugs, you've got to have access to the actual booze or drug. But if you're a problem gambler you can get high even if you don't have money because you can always use your credit card, which makes the Internet especially dangerous for these individuals.

"Problem gamblers are always one bet away from a big windfall," said Whyte. "They'll do anything they can — beg, borrow, or steal — to stay in the game. After all, you never have to admit you've lost until you've quit, so the longer you stay gambling, the better."

So my question is, why is gambling — in all forms — becoming so much more prevalent and accepted? Are more of us looking to escape? Do we expect o get something for nothing? Have the majority of us simply discovered that gambling is a lot of fun and there's nothing wrong with that? Is there something missing from our lives — excitement, for instance — that gambling satisfies? Have we given up trying to save for retirement and figure the only way we're going to be able to afford it is if we get lucky and our number hits? Are gamblers looking to get something for (next to) nothing?

If you gamble on a regular basis, tell me what you get out of it, aside from the occasional winnings.

Why do some people fork over $5 for lottery tickets without thinking twice, yet drive two miles out of their way to save 3 cents on a gallon of gasoline?

By the way, gambling — both healthy and unhealthy — is not a uniquely American activity. It's huge in Asia and a big deal in Europe, too. Canada and Australia have organizations devoted to understanding and helping compulsive gamblers.

Next week I'll discuss why the young and the old are especially vulnerable to developing a gambling problem and why banning gambling won't solve the problem.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Gail

If you or someone you love has a gambling problem, there are tons of resources you can find on the Internet. I got about 1.5 million hits when I typed "gambling problem" into my Web browser. Here's a sample:

www.ncpgambling.org — Web site for the National Council on Problem Gambling. There's a 10-question test to see if your gambling has reached the "problem" stage, plus places to go for help.

www.gamblersanonymous.org — Many states have a chapter of the "Council on Compulsive Gambling." Adding the name of your state to the search should bring these up.

If you prefer to speak with someone, you can call these toll-free phone numbers for confidential advice:

1-800-522-4700 — National helpline that will put you in touch with counseling and treatment providers in your area.

1-800-GAMBLER — Connects you to the New Jersey chapter of the Council on Compulsive Gambling. They'll refer you to local providers.

 

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