Amid the scramble for jobs, money and prestige in the effort to build new casinos in New York state, the negative impact of gambling is sometimes ignored.
So on Wednesday, the state commission that will oversee the new casinos sat down to listen. Among the points raised by speakers at the forum:
Problem gamblers show similar brain patterns as cocaine addicts.
Up to 1 percent of people in the United States have gambling problems and 2 percent are borderline gamblers.
Only about $61 million a year is spent on prevention and treatment nationwide — or roughly two-thirds of what is spent on such programs by the Canadian province of Ontario, with a population of 13.5 million.
“Because there is no substance used in gambling, . . . people see it in a different way,” explained Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
That means those suffering from problem or pathological gambling are often left with few options for assistance. And the problems their addiction can cause are every bit as real for the people around them.
“We can’t wait for casinos to expand before pumping money into the programs,” Whyte told members of the state Gaming Commission.
With the first wave of up to four state-licensed casinos poised to open by next year, the commission hosted the six-hour forum in an effort to draw increased attention to the issue of problem gambling. Chairman Mark Gearan called for the forum last month, challenging the commission to use it as a framework for establishing responsible gambling programs for the entire gaming industry.
Gearan said the legislation approving casino gambling in New York requires that gaming operators seeking a license must address problem gambling and requires a dedicated funding mechanism for its treatment — a $500 fee on every slot machine and table game at casinos that will be dedicated to address gambling addiction.
“We want to build on that momentum that was established from that New York state act,” Gearan said during the forum.
The discussion featured 15 panelists ranging from clinical researchers to an executive overseeing the responsible gaming policies for Caesars Entertainment, a multibillion-dollar gaming corporation. Though problem gambling remains an issue in the United States, it is one that doesn’t appear to be growing as more states embrace legalized casino gaming, explained Sarah Nelson, a researcher with the Cambridge Health Alliance of Harvard Medical School.
“The data suggest more people have tried gambling, but the number who developed problems has not increased to the same extent.”
Nelson urged against creating knee-jerk regulations not based on solid research, since such rules could have unintended negative consequences. She also urged the commission to adequately advertise the programs available for problem gambling — such as self-exclusion, voluntarily having oneself barred from a casino — and use them as a gateway for treatment.
“Self-exclusion shouldn’t be considered a treatment,” she said. “It should be used as a way for people to start walking down that path.”
The commission heard from Steve and Gloria Block, a Staten Island couple who overcame gambling addiction during the 1970s. Gloria Block recalled the feeling of shame she felt every time she was unable to pay bills because her husband had squandered his paycheck.
“I was suffering from emotional abuse as he tried to cover up and juggle the negative consequence of his behavior,” she recalled.
She sought out a support group and was able to convince her husband to do the same. Without a well-defined support network, she said gambling addicts and their families are left vulnerable.
“You need knowledge of specific gambling-related self-help groups in the areas of casinos,” she said. “Specifics — where they meet, what time, what day of the week, where are the parking facilities, what floor do they meet on — you need to know how these programs work and how to encourage those struggling.”
Steve Block traced his struggle with gambling from his youth to adulthood and how it impacted so many people in his life. He recovered to co-found the New York Council on Problem Gambling in 1993 and become one of only 30 certified problem gambling counselors in the state.
“I’ve seen the devastation gambling can create and the miracle of recovery for those who are given the opportunity to access services.”
Some prevention efforts can be taken by the casino operators themselves, said Jennifer Shatley, a vice president with Caesars Entertainment, a company that created a responsible gaming program during the 1980s. She said her company has developed methods for identifying problem gamblers and uses them to exclude them from their facilities.
“We don’t want them in our venue,” she said. “They cause problems. They’re just not good for the environment.”