In a little more than two decades, legal gambling has spread from Las Vegas and Atlantic City to every state in the union except Utah.
Thirty-nine states have lotteries. Casinos are operating in 29 states. Seven states have “video lottery terminals” at racetracks or casinos. Three-fourths of the U.S. population lives within 300 miles of a casino.
Americans spend more on gambling (more than $600 billion a year) than they do on food (about $400 billion).
One study found that 80 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 had gambled in the previous year.
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According to a Harvard Medical School study, compulsive gambling increased by 50 percent from the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s.
In 1999, the National Gambling Impact Commission, a panel created to probe the social consequences of the explosion of legal betting, called on state governments to observe a moratorium on the expansion of gambling. The commission said the nation had not had time to assess the social impact of the huge increase in pathological gambling associated with the proliferation of lotteries, casinos and other forms of gambling.
Revenue-hungry governors and state lawmakers have turned gambling into the national pastime. But it’s still not enough.
Our elected representatives want to create even more gambling opportunities and more gamblers.
Several years ago, representatives of the horse racing industry began pushing the legislature to approve slot machines at racetracks. Increasing the level of gambling at the tracks would “save” Kentucky’s signature industry and relieve the state of its budget woes, racetrack officials said.
Now casinos are back again. State Rep. Larry Clark, D-Louisville, wants to make casino gambling available across the state. Clark’s proposal would allow nine casinos. Clark and his allies have trotted out the same old lines used to turn America into a nation of gamblers.
Education will benefit, they promise. The casinos are for the children. Medicaid, economic development, local government – the gamblers will pay for it.
Frequent gamblers pay a heavy tax for the politicians’ unfulfilled promises of big gains in education and health care.
Too many politicians are addicted to gambling revenue. It’s becoming increasingly clear they won’t stop expanding gambling until the gamblers have no more money to bet.
COMPLUSIVE GAMBLERS HAVE FEW OPTIONS FOR TREATMENT
Legalized TOGEL gambling has provided a jackpot of tax dollars for many states, but virtually no money is being funneled to treat the exploding numbers of problem players — the ones who could lose everything.
Louisiana, often thought of as running behind the curve on almost everything, has the nation’s only two state-supported residential treatment centers for problem gamblers.
Among the other gambling states, only New Jersey chips in — on a limited basis
“If you took the size of the Earth as being the problem and you took a swimming pool in someone’s back yard, that’s the size of the resources available for compulsive gamblers,” said Arnie Wexler, former executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
Estimates vary widely on how many problem gamblers there are in the United States.
A national study authorized by Congress in the late 1990s suggested that up to 6 percent of the adult population has a gambling problem, with about 1 percent being pathological — or completely out of control.
In Louisiana, population 4.4 million, a recent study by the state health department estimated about 74,000 pathological gamblers. No one knows the exact number, Wexler said.
The state has two residential-type treatment centers — CORE North in Shreveport and CORE South in New Orleans, with a total of 36 beds — that’s more than any other gambling state, including Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois, California and Florida.
Problem gamblers from those states regularly wind up in Louisiana’s centers, but unlike state residents who are treated free, they pay $6,000 per month for their stay.
“We are only meeting something in the vicinity of 1 percent of the need,” said Reece Middleton, head of the Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gambling and co-founder of the Shreveport center, which opened in 1999.
“But that’s not to say that if we opened 100 beds tomorrow, we’d fill them. People are not real easy to get into treatment.”
Nationwide, casinos paid about $4 billion in direct gambling taxes in 2002, according to the American Gaming Association, a casino industry trade group.
Louisiana’s two treatment centers get $2 million a year from state gambling taxes: $500,000 each from the New Orleans land casino, the 14 riverboat casinos, the state lottery and video poker. The state’s three Indian casinos, which do not pay state taxes, contribute nothing.
The explosion of legalized gambling since the early 1990s has doubtlessly fueled the problem, but the number of Gamblers Anonymous meetings shows that the crisis reaches far beyond states with casinos, Wexler said. Sports betting — legal only in Nevada — contributes to a big share, he said.
Since it opened last year, CORE South has handled 185 clients, said Program Director Corinne Dumestre. Counselors have seen gamblers who got in trouble with just about every form of wagering imaginable — illegal sports betting, casinos, video poker, horse racing and Internet casinos.
“You are going to continually have an increasing number of problem gamblers as you increase gaming,” Dumestre said.
Those seeking help have limited options. Health insurance coverage generally does not cover treatment.
“There’s a Catch-22,” said Mitch Wallick, who operates the C.A.R.E treatment center, a private facility in Palm Beach, Fla. “By the time a gambler is ready for treatment and recognizes that, he has no money left.”
That is what happened to Jimmy, a San Francisco resident who wound up in the New Orleans center. He said he started looking for help about a year ago — while embezzling $500 a week from his employer to fuel forays into high-stakes card games at casinos
Both his company’s assistance program and his health insurer told him they couldn’t help.
They didn’t recognize it as a problem, said Jimmy, who spoke only on the condition that his real name not be used.
By the time Jimmy got into CORE South, he had lost his $65,000 job and separated from his wife and three children. His father loaned him the money to get treatment.
Along with the other residents, Jimmy is learning to control his behavior through individual and group therapy, much of it patterned after the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.