Last week the New York Lottery announced its 12th consecutive year of record sales and earnings and reported strong growth from casinos.
The agency suggested that this was good news, noting that “The New York Lottery continues to be North America’s largest and most profitable lottery, contributing nearly $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2011-2012 to help support education in New York State.”
But people who work with gambling addicts see a darker side.
“For some, gambling is not a harmless behavior,” said Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling. “People are losing more and more money every year. That’s money that should be spent on services for people.”
According to a 2011 study from the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, problem gambling is more common among U.S. adults than alcohol dependence, and gambling, frequent gambling and problem gambling increase in frequency during the teen years, reaching the highest levels in their 20s and 30s. More than 80 percent of Americans gamble each year, and between 3 percent and 5 percent of Americans have a gambling problem, according to the institute.
Maney said the state doesn’t have enough services for problem gamblers.
“We don’t have a comprehensive plan,” he said. “We don’t have a public awareness program.” He said that the state needs to make a better effort to educate people about what problem gambling is and that treatment is available.
“The only message about gambling that’s out there is a positive one,” Maney said. He said that there are guidelines, rules and aggressive public awareness campaigns around addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco, but such measures are lacking when it comes to gambling.
“We don’t do any prevention of it,” Maney said. “We’re not talking to kids about it. With alcohol, tobacco, we do a nice job of talking to kids.”
According to Maney, the questions gamblers should ask themselves include:
• Am I losing money?
• Am I going back to try to win more?
• Am I lying about my gambling?
• Am I spending more time on gambling than other activities that I used to enjoy?
• Is gambling causing problems at home?
Less state help
Until recently, The Prevention Council in Saratoga Springs had a full-time, state-funded position dedicated to raising awareness of problem gambling. But last year’s state budget cut the funding for that position and trimmed a total of $2.5 million from 41 existing gambling education, assessment and referral programs throughout the state.
“This cut is proposed simultaneously with new efforts to increase gambling proceeds by $154 million in the 2011-2012 state budget; most notably with the hiring of 50 new positions by the NYS Lottery,” the New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers noted in a statement at the time. “Increasing gambling opportunities increases costs to local communities across NYS. Consequences include addiction, mental health problems, bankruptcy, fraud, foreclosures, suicides, divorce and embezzlement.”
The organization said that New York is the only state in the country without dedicated funding from gambling revenues for problem gambling services. There are no new cuts to funding for gambling programs in this year’s budget, according to a spokeswoman for the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
“This year our budget remained flat and there were no program reductions or closures,” spokeswoman Janette Rondo said in an email last week. “That is my official response to your budget questions.”
OASAS runs a 24-hour hotline, 1-877-8-HOPENY (846-7369), for people seeking help for alcoholism, substance abuse and problem gambling. All calls are toll-free, anonymous and confidential.
Carolyn Hapeman, a spokeswoman for the New York Lottery, said that state law requires that gambling profits go to education; the Legislature would need to change that law for the money to be directed elsewhere, such as into prevention services.
“Our job is to raise money, and that’s what we do,” Hapeman said. “Anything beyond that is a decision for others.”
Prevention Council staffer Evan Williamson runs workshops and discussion on substance abuse, but he used to serve as the organization’s gambling prevention person. He said he’s tried to incorporate gambling into his sessions on substance abuse, because “it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”
March Madness, he said, provides a good opportunity to discuss gambling with students, as so many are keyed in to the NCAA Division 1 basketball championship tournament.
Kids are more exposed to gambling than they used to be, Williamson said.
“They show poker on ESPN as a sport,” he said. “There are parents who allow poker games in the basement.” He said kids should play games such as poker and blackjack for fun, without exchanging money.
Williamson said he didn’t think the benefits of state-sponsored gambling were enough to offset the costs.
“The money is coming out of losers’ pockets,” he said. “In this economic climate, people don’t have money to lose. ... It seems rather obvious that if you’re going to increase gambling options and locations that there’s going to be a rise in problem gambling. Why wouldn’t you increase prevention efforts, to stave off that rise?”
Phil Rainer serves as director of clinical services at The Center for Problem Gambling, an outpatient treatment center for gamblers in Albany. He said that in the past four years the number of people seeking treatment for gambling has risen dramatically. Right now, the center provides between 375 and 425 units of service a month, despite receiving funding to provide 200 services a month.
The Center for Problem Gambling is funded through OASAS. That funding has not been cut, but it hasn’t kept up with demand, either, Rainer said. He said that the demand is partly driven by a new, highly successful approach to treatment that the center adopted about four years ago; this approach combines cognitive behavior strategies with a 12-step recovery process.
Another factor, he said, is that more people are gambling.
“There are so many new venues for people to gamble,” he said. “You don’t have to leave the living room, or even the couch, to do it.”
Rainer said that gamblers are diverse. Some people got hooked as kids, or learned about gambling while visiting the track with their parents. Video-gaming machines at so-called racinos are popular, as are scratch-off tickets, because they are easy to access.
John Welte, who served as principal investigator for the University at Buffalo’s Institute on Addictions, said that government should be paying more attention to gambling problems. “We have made a big deal about alcohol problems,” he said. “We have a [National Institutes of Health] agency devoted to funding alcohol research. But there’s no such agency for gambling.”
Welte said that when gambling increases, so does problem gambling. But he said federal and state governments might be more reluctant to fund gambling prevention programs, due to budget shortfalls and the fact that gambling revenues fund state programs, such as education. “One reason state governments might not make a big deal out of gambling is because they don’t want to remind people that they’re contributing to a problem,” he said. “When New York promotes the lottery, it might be promoting something that’s contributing to a problem.”
Living within 10 miles of a casino doubles the risk of gambling, according to the Research Institute on Addictions.
Edelgard Wulfert, a professor of psychology at the University at Albany, has been researching gambling for the past 10 years.
She said building a new casino will lead to an increase in problem gambling in the area where it is located. “Now people have more access to gambling,” she said. “Now an individual who has never gambled can go to the casino. There’s evidence that over a period of a few years, you will see more bankruptcy, divorce and family problems.”
Wulfert described online gambling as “the addiction of the future. ... Wherever you are, you can engage in online gambling.” She said that research has shown that gambling engages the same circuitry in the brain as alcohol and drugs. “There’s something exciting about gambling,” she said. “There’s something exciting about winning.”
She added that the odds are greatly stacked against gamblers, and that the longer one gambles, the more likely one is to lose.
“The vast majority of people can engage in gambling without adverse effects, but we need more checks and balances and much more in treatment and prevention,” Wulfert said.
According to the New York Lottery, sales and net win for fiscal year 2011-2012 totaled $8.44 billion, and substantial increases in casino net win and profits were reported at all nine of the Lottery’s video-gaming casinos, led by the opening last October of Resorts World Casino New York City at the Aqueduct racetrack. Another big factor contributing to the growth in sales was the Powerball game, which underwent a redesign that increased the ticket price from $1 to $2 and created larger starting jackpots. In addition, a world-record-setting jackpot of $656 million for Mega Millions produced more than $67.4 million in profit.
Overall, total sales and net win increased $571.3 million, or 7.3 percent, over the previous year, while profits increased $234.1 million, or 8.8 percent, from the previous year. Traditional Lottery games, which include Powerball, Mega Millions and scratch-off games, saw sales increase 3.8 percent, to $7 billion, while the video-gaming business generated a record $1.4 billion in net win and $697.1 million in profit.
Saratoga Casino and Raceway posted a $15.1 million increase, or 10.8 percent, in net win, according to the New York Lottery.
The money for education produced by the Lottery represents 15 percent of total state aid to local school districts, according to the New York Lottery.
According to the New York Lottery, 96 percent of the Lottery’s sales and net win is returned to New Yorkers in the form of prizes, aid to education and commission to retailers.
Of the Lottery’s record-setting year, director Gordon Medenica said, “We’re always thrilled to set a new record and continue as the nation’s largest and most successful lottery. But most importantly, we are proud of the significant contribution we make to support New York’s schools. We look forward to continuing our record of success in the future.”
The Center for Problem Gambling can be reached at 462-6531.