HONOLULU – An ocean away from the nearest casino, bingo parlor or horse track, Hawaii residents still find ways to place bets and play games of chance. And despite a ban, gambling addiction here is as widespread as other states.
Families are torn apart, causing financial ruin and spawning violent crime. Now, online gambling is only accerbating the situation, according to experts and addicts themselves.
Some say the problem in Hawaii is worse because gambling is widely and culturally accepted and laws against it are seldom enforced. Although the state spends millions annually on drug and alcohol prevention and treatment, there are no government programs dedicated to helping problem gamblers.
"In Hawaii, it's sort of like: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "They're ignoring a substantial problem in their midst, apparently because they want to pretend that since it is illegal, no one does it and no one gets in trouble."
The Washington-based council's hot line received 763 calls last year from gamblers in Hawaii seeking help, even though the council doesn't advertise in the state.
"These are disorders that are deeply rooted in the human condition. They are not dependent on legality of the activity," Whyte said.
State Health Director Chiyome Fukino, whose agency oversees the abuse programs, said the number of calls is not significant compared with the state's population.
"I think the lines of personal responsibility and government control, although not always clear, in this instance are more heavily weighted toward personal responsibililty," she said when asked about the lack of state gambling addiction programs.
The last resource for many gamblers is the weekly Gamblers Anonymous meeting held every Tuesday night. Among those attending a recent meeting on Oahu were a former airport screener who said he stole money from tourist luggage to support his habit and a man who claimed he lost $75,000 in a month.
When the money runs out, gambling addicts often fall into desperation and sometimes crime. In recent years, a series of crimes have been linked to gambling in Hawaii.
In April, three Honolulu police officers were indicted for allegedly conspiring with a card and cockfighting operation located across from an elementary school, and an internal Honolulu police investigation is reportedly focusing on officers who bet on illegal cockfights.
In 2004, three men were shot, two fatally, on a golf course. Police said the shootings were part of a dispute between factions competing to provide security at gambling houses.
In 2002, a local banker was sentenced for bankruptcy and wire fraud. His bankruptcy filing included $13.5 million owed to two Las Vegas casinos.
And a former city housing supervisor was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2000 for stealing $5.8 million in public funds. He used the money for lavish trips to Las Vegas and blamed his gambling addiction.
Hawaii's love of gambling can be seen in Nevada's casino oasis, the top destination for islanders and sometimes referred to as the "ninth Hawaiian island." The California Hotel and Casino charters 10,000 Hawaii travelers a month to Las Vegas.
Several lottery and casino companies have lobbied the Legislature and business leaders to open the way for them to set up in Hawaii.
But Judy Rantala, president of the Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said she likes Hawaii the way it is. "I think we can get tourists here without gambling," she said.
There's little doubt that legalized gambling would do well in Hawaii, but many say it would drastically change the personality of the islands and breed more problem gamblers.
The Gamblers Anonymous program leader said legalization won't help.
"If we legalize gambling, this room wouldn't be big enough," he said.