What our gambling problem is really costing us

The country's growing dependence on gaming is destroying more lives than ever. And I should know: I'm an addict

Published July 16, 2011 8:01PM (EDT)

I started gambling seriously in 2000, the year I moved to Seattle for a newspaper job. By 2001, I was hooked. I've been grappling with a poker addiction ever since.

While I've had some happier times at the poker tables recently, during the past decade gambling has often wreaked havoc with my life. I don't know if I've "hit bottom" -- a term many in the recovery community rightly detest -- because I don't know what, for me, bottom is.

There are things I've never done because of my habit. I've never borrowed from a loan shark or bet with a bookie. I've never stolen anything to raise gambling funds. I've never been kicked out of my apartment because I couldn't pay the rent. I've never let work slide so badly that it caused me to be fired.

But there are lots of ways in which my gambling affected me for the worse during my six years in Seattle and more recently in Las Vegas: I've left bills unpaid, sometimes for weeks, months, or years. I've borrowed incessantly, both to raise poker funds and to pay bills.

Several times when the losses mounted and funds were especially tight, I've survived for days on end on boxes of store-brand mac and cheese, ramen noodles, saltines, and seltzer water.

Perhaps worst of all, I've been missing out on some basic human connections. Because of the thousands of hours I've spent playing poker, I've let some friendships and family relationships wither. And I've dated and pursued serious girlfriends less energetically than I used to. Some of that might be a function of middle age. But much of it, without doubt, has been due to poker.

I don't know what my gambling future holds. It's my hope that I'll be able to find a way to reinvigorate my life through reduced time at the poker tables. (This might be easier now, given that I recently moved from Las Vegas to Washington, DC.) Quitting for good is one option and is something I recognize may ultimately be the answer. Another option is to do nothing, to continue to play regularly, no matter where I live. After all, it's becoming more and more difficult to find a region of the country not within easy driving distance from a legal poker room.

I'm currently leaning toward a third option, one espoused by two writers who each released gambling memoirs in the last few years, Martha Frankel and Burt Dragin. Both had developed serious gambling problems -- Frankel through Internet poker and Dragin through regular trips to casinos. Neither ended up permanently in recovery. Instead, both say their answer has been to limit their gambling to a weekly poker game with friends and reasonable stakes.

"(T)his game is social and relaxing, not compulsive and fearful," wrote Frankel, a celebrity profiler for magazines, in her 2008 book "Hats & Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair with Gambling." "It reminds me of the fun that I had when I first started playing, and how much I love poker. And it shows me that I'm no longer out of control, fighting a dragon I could never slay."

Maybe this kind of solution could work for me, with a trip or two to Vegas every year tacked on for good measure. Maybe it's pie-in-the-sky thinking. I don't yet know.

It's not easy to write these things. There's a certain shame attached to confessing a gambling addiction in our culture, even more so than copping to being an alcoholic or a cocaine addict. Many still believe that people gamble excessively because of a lack of willpower or because they're simply immoral. These antiquated beliefs are beginning to fade, as doctors, scientists, and researchers are increasingly concluding that pathological gambling is a behavioral addiction that affects the brain in much the same way as substance dependencies. I share this notion.

Since the 1970s, legalized gambling has grabbed hold of the country's consciousness. It's rooted itself in scores of cities and small towns in every region, including many that never before have had to deal directly with the fallout.

Indian tribes have renegotiated compacts in more than two dozen states to allow for new casinos. State governments have joined in, bringing private casinos, card rooms, and video poker and slot machines by the tens of thousands into their jurisdictions.

The national poker craze has proved amazingly durable. Forty-three states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands each sponsor heavily promoted lotteries.

In 2007, Americans lost more than $92 billion gambling -- about nine times what they lost in 1982. To put that amount into perspective, it's almost ten times what moviegoers in the United States spent on tickets during the same year.

In 2005, 73 million Americans were estimated to have patronized one of the country's twelve hundred casinos, card rooms, or bingo parlors -- twenty million more than just five years earlier.

Thirty-five years ago, casinos were legal in one state, Nevada. As of 2010, various forms of gambling have been legalized everywhere in the United States except Utah and Hawaii.

The total amount wagered legally in the United States is "undoubtedly" well over a trillion dollars per year, one of the nation's leading gambling experts, I. Nelson Rose, concluded in 2010.

Because of this growth, millions of Americans have for the first time been directly exposed to gambling. As a result, there's been a significant increase in the number of addicted gamblers around the country. There is a fairly obvious proposition at work here: in communities where legalized gambling has been introduced, new problem and pathological gamblers have been forged.

According to experts, gambling becomes a problem when it disrupts or damages personal lives or careers. Problem gamblers often devolve into pathological gamblers when the gambler loses control over her betting; when she gambles more often or for larger amounts; and perhaps most importantly, when she continues to gamble despite adverse consequences.

Those consequences are felt not just by the gamblers. They ripple outward to family and friends, employers and whole communities. They run the gamut from decreased work productivity and increased physical and mental health problems to rises in divorces and various types of crimes, from theft and embezzlement to domestic violence and child abuse. Studies have also shown that pathological gambling has caused an increase in bankruptcy filings and claims for unemployment and welfare benefits, and in the worst cases, suicides.

The gambling industry argues that in the long run, problem gambling rates in some communities where gambling has been introduced have stayed about the same or have even decreased slightly. In certain cases this may be true, as some who initially develop problems because of the new availability of gambling subsequently undergo what researchers call an "adaptation" effect. Though problem gambling rates almost always spike immediately after the introduction of legalized gambling, sometimes they slowly drop back to where they were. But this misses several important points. In the worst cases, many gamblers "adapt" by going to jail or committing suicide. Regardless, even in communities where adaptation may have occurred, it's always the case that an initial spike in problem gambling rates means a greater number of injured lives, temporary or not. Finally, many researchers discount the adaptation thesis, concluding that legalizing gambling, especially slot machines, results in problem gambling rates that, over time, in fact remain higher than they were.

The most noteworthy research conducted over the last couple of decades concludes that the unremitting expansion of legalized gambling has helped turn great numbers of Americans into problem and pathological gamblers.

To wit:

A comprehensive "meta-analysis" of one hundred and twenty gambling prevalence research studies, which looked at gambling behavior in the United States and Canada between 1974 and 1997, concluded that there had been a dramatic rise in the adult problem and pathological gambling rates over that time. While the studies conducted from 1977 to 1993 determined that at some point over their lifetimes, 4.38 percent of the two countries' general populations had become problem or pathological gamblers, the 1994 to 1997 studies showed a sharp hike in the percentage of "lifetime" problem or pathological gamblers -- more than 2 percent, to nearly 7 percent. That's a jump of more than 4.3 million people -- roughly equivalent to the entire populations of states such as Kentucky or Louisiana.

"As gambling has become more socially accepted and accessible during the past two decades," adults in the general population have "started to gamble in increasing numbers," the study concluded. It was led by Howard Shaffer, the gambling industry-funded researcher who later helped develop the adaptation theory. "Newly exposed to the gambling experience, adults in the general population are having difficulty adjusting and, unlike the other population segments who already evidence gambling problems, are beginning to report increasingly higher rates of gambling disorder."

Other prominent studies back up this notion. The gambling behavior survey carried out for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, for example, determined that those who lived within fifty miles of a casino were more than twice as likely to develop significant problems as those who lived between fifty and two hundred and fifty miles from the establishment.

And look at the rates of both problem and pathological gambling in Nevada -- by far the most extensive legalized gambling market in the United States. The most complete prevalence survey ever taken in Nevada, published in 2002, showed that the incidence of problem and pathological gambling in Nevada was exponentially higher than in the United States as a whole.

The study concluded that 2.9 percent of the state's adult population were problem gamblers, and that another 3.5 percent were "probable" pathological gamblers -- for a whopping total of 6.4 percent of the population. Assuming that those rates have remained the same, given Nevada's 2010 population, that amounts to more than one hundred and fifteen thousand adults.

Spend any time in Las Vegas and it's easy to conclude that those numbers, if anything, are an understatement. The number of pawn shops and payday loan stores that mark virtually every neighborhood -- places for often-desperate problem gamblers to replenish their gambling bankrolls -- is astonishing. As a resident, you can't escape gambling. Not only have "locals casinos" sprouted up in every corner of the Las Vegas Valley, not only are casino promotions plastered on countless billboards throughout the region and on TV and radio advertisements, it's nearly impossible to grab a drink at a neighborhood bar or even shop for groceries or buy gasoline without passing by banks of slots and video poker machines.

What's more, it's clear that as the number and range of legalized gambling opportunities have grown throughout Las Vegas -- and the country -- and as a rising number of gamblers have suffered serious consequences, more and more have turned to Gamblers Anonymous, or GA, for help. In the Las Vegas metro area, about 100 GA chapters meet weekly, a higher number than anywhere else in the country.

Over a recent ten-year period, GA -- a twelve-step support program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous -- grew dramatically nationally, too. From 1996 to 2005, the number of weekly GA meetings nationwide rose by almost 50 percent, from 1,073 to 1,584.

Yet the newly addicted gamblers and all those they impact aren't the only victims. States and other municipalities have also increasingly been suffering some pretty severe gambling hangovers. Governors, state legislators, and mayors all around the country have become hooked on gambling revenue, coveting the easy ways the steady stream of government gambling winnings have shored up budget deficits, paid for education programs, and reduced property and income taxes.

Gambling revenues have become critical income streams for more than a few state governments. According to a 2005 report released by researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in four states -- Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, and South Dakota -- taxes from casinos, slot machines, video poker terminals, racetracks, and states lotteries made up more than 10 percent of overall revenues. In six other states, gambling brought in more than 6 percent of overall revenues. And those numbers were rising.

State leaders don't relinquish these income streams easily. And in many recession-wracked states currently burdened with unprecedented budget gaps, officials are clamoring for more gambling. In 2009 and 2010, officials in at least thirty-seven states -- three out of four -- pushed for new or expanded gambling. The evidence is clear that the gambling industry and their politician partners are gearing up for more battles than ever.

As these debates are being hashed out all over the country, a variety of other important gambling trends in the United States also have manifested themselves.

The poker explosion, assumed by many to be little more than a pop-culture fad when in first took root in 2003, has maintained its hold on the American public.

Internet gambling drew millions of Americans to their computer screens in the years before the federal government in 2011 effectively shut down the top sites -- a setback the gambling sites and their political allies are working hard to overturn.

Asian-Americans, often lured to casinos by persistent industry marketing, are both gambling and becoming addicted at rates sufficiently high that researchers are devoting more effort than ever into studying the phenomenon. Asian community activists are also now taking more serious note. "This marketing goes beyond targeting and into predatory practices," Helen Gym, a Philadelphia-based activist, told me last year. "We consider it to be a devastating thing."

Gambling addiction science is in the midst of a revolution. Scientists are concluding in greater numbers that pathological gambling is a true addiction. Long classified as an "impulse control disorder" -- closer to kleptomania or pyromania than to alcoholism -- leading psychiatrists and addiction researchers are set soon to change their definition. In its 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, called the DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association is preparing to reclassify pathological gambling as a "behavioral addiction" more akin neurologically to alcohol and drug addictions than, say, to compulsive shoplifting. No other behavior has ever been classified as an addiction by the psychiatric group.

Finally, as these changes are in the works, more attention is being paid to industry influence in gambling addiction research.

A charity affiliated with the powerful American Gaming Association, the commercial casino industry's Washington, DC-based trade group, funds the majority of the problem gambling research conducted in the United States, many gambling researchers contend. This is prompting growing concerns among critics, who assert that the industry is attempting to buy research legitimacy and conclusions that suit its purposes -- that gambling is less addictive than many believe; that problem gamblers don't provide the industry with the high percentage of revenues that numerous independent studies have suggested; that pathological gamblers frequently have addictive "personalities," implying that the industry should in no way be held to blame for their gambling addiction.

I don't mean to propose that legalized gambling is responsible for every social ill befalling America. Far from it. And gambling businesses do provide jobs -- something that can't be scoffed at, especially in our bottomed-out economy.

Not to mention, a significant majority of those who visit their nearby racino or card room or video poker bar with friends once or twice a month, or who buy the occasional lottery ticket with dreams of striking it rich, do so without developing negative side effects. They don't gamble because they're addicted. They simply get a kick out of it, and they're glad the state has provided them with the entertainment option.

Yet the gambling boom has had myriad consequences -- costs that have grown right alongside the industry's growth.

In the end, voters in more and more states are being asked to weigh whether to grant gambling a place in their communities and possibly their lives.

Increases in state-sanctioned gambling aren't just drawing folks who have been gambling illegally, concludes Robert Ward, deputy director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

"In other words," said Ward, "the states almost certainly are creating new gamblers—and a certain number of those folks are finding out first-hand what addiction is all about."

Sam Skolnik has been in the journalism business for more than 20 years, including reporting stints with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Las Vegas Sun. He's currently based in Washington, D.C., as deputy editor of the National Law Journal. 

Adapted from "High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction" (Beacon Press, 2011). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

By Sam Skolnik

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