Casino Executive Reports - September 2001

... or is it Just Problem Gambling?
By The Rev. Tom Grey

     Since 1994, the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling has stood firmly in opposition to the expansion of gambling in America. We have been attacked by the purveyors of gambling as prohibitionists bent on denying people their freedom to gamble. In fact, we are motivated to protect our families and our communities from the problems and pain that gambling produces.

     About 83% of those responding to an American Gaming Association (AGA) poll in 1999 favored programs to discourage compulsive gambling. About 95% favored similar programs for underage gambling. The AGA calls for "responsible gaming" yet, throughout a decade of expansion, the gambling juggernaut sought to delay, evade and even deny its responsibility for the problems and pain of gambling addiction, which is now reaching epidemic proportions.

     A citizen backlash against gambling expansion in the mid 1990s resulted in a smokescreen of slogan, the establishment of a responsible gaming center and a poster program calling for "self-exclusion." These hollow efforts are matched by the reluctance of state and federal government to provide safeguards and information about the dangers of gambling. Little wonder we are now debating its destructive impact.

     Some state governments have called for a "Gambling Awareness Day." Imagine our government responding to the Bridgestone/Firestone/Ford Explorer tragedy with no hearings, no investigation and no recall; just a "Rollover Awareness Day."

     We are faced with an addictive product, peddled on Main Street as entertainment while the industry's government partners protect the purveyor; of the product. Profits grow. The body count rises.

     Gambling's best customers are its biggest losers. Independent studies show that, conservatively, 30% of gambling profits come from addicted gamblers. It's no wonder promoters and politicians give only lip service to the pathology of the product, while doing nothing to proscribe or prevent its resultant pain. Profits are addictive, and promoters, politicians and regulators do nothing to disturb the revenue stream by addressing the real problems of gambling addiction - much less prevent young people - the next generation of players - from being hooked.

     A study funded by the gambling industry found there are 2.5 million pathological gamblers in America. "We certainly have a gut feeling in the industry that this is a problem," responded Brian McKay, former general counsel for International Game Technology. "it is not significant and it's good to see a confirmation of this." Despite their own mantra that "one pathological gambler is too many," several million pathological gamblers are dismissed as insignificant.

     Independent studies linking gambling with suicide and crime are countered by studies funded by the gambling industry denying the connection. Respected leaders in the research-and-treatment field are publicly attacked as "anti-gambling advocates."

     It is an oxymoron to suggest the National Center for Responsible Gaming, an organization funded by the gambling industry, can generate independent research. An industry that attempts to package gambling as "gamin" now has an organization that is attempting to shift the diagnosis of the disease from pathological gambling to "disordered gaming." That's disingenuous, at best.

     Legislative attempts to limit credit, preserve loss limits, move ATMs off the premises, ban wagering on college sports, raise the minimum gambling age to 21, restrict alcohol consumption and prevent riverboats from becoming land-based operations have fallen prey to the massive infusion of gambling money into the political process.

     Attempts to provide state funding for treatment and prevention of problem gambling are ignored or blocked. In Nevada - ranked 45th among states for overall health - a modest problem gambling bill for $250,000 to assist and prevent Nevada residents from being destroyed by a vicious, suicidal addiction to gambling was reduced to $75,000, then left to die. Let the addicts fend for themselves!

     About 14% of those in substance-abuse programs are pathological gamblers, 10 times the rate of the general population.

     "Predictably, the growth in legalized gambling has been accompanied by an increase in problem and pathological gambling," says Joseph Califano, chairman of the Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse. "Studies estimate about 2.5 million adults have met the criteria for pathological gambling in the past year. More alarming is the fact an additional 1.1 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 are estimated to be pathological gamblers."

     Since we have established programs for a war on alcohol and other drug addictions, we have hopes of similar action being taken on gambling addiction.

     Personal gambling addiction detracts public attention from state governments" addiction to casino and lottery revenues. Gambling addiction is not only coming under scrutiny by public-health officials but by attorneys who envision a honey pot of lucrative lawsuits. Casino-player tracking and marketing techniques provide lawyers with an arsenal of evidence of the industry's predatory practices. The showdown is emerging; First, public awareness of the costs of pathological gambling; then litigation; and finally, legislation.

     There will come a tobacco-like grand finale for gambling. You can bet on it!

The Rev. Grey is founder and executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.