WHAT OTHER SAY: Solve that gambling problem? Come on back

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

In its wisdom, the Missouri Gaming Commission last week decided that people who voluntarily sign up for a lifetime exclusion from the state's 12 gambling casinos ought to have a second chance.

The commission gave tentative approval to a new rule that would allow so-called "disassociated persons" to get off what the industry calls "The List."

(Actually, there are two lists; the other one is for crooks and others of "unsavory reputation." This is called the involuntary exclusion list. You don't put yourself on that list; the commission does it for you. That list remains in place.)

Under the rule given preliminary approval last week, starting next March, anyone who has been on the state's List of Disassociated Persons for at least five years can ask the gaming commission to let him or her back into casinos.

It's a one-time only deal: If you get off "The List" and then decide you can't handle it and sign up again, it will be permanent. Still, some future commission could change that, too.

At first glance, the commission's action begs for cynicism. It's like your bartender telling you he's going to cut you off, but if you stay dry for five years, you're free to come back and drink up.

But it's not that simple. An enormous amount of research has been done on problem gamblers, and several studies have been done on those on "The List" in Missouri.

Even before the state's voters removed the $500 loss limit in 2008 — meaning gamblers no longer had to show an identification card to gain a "boarding card" for a "riverboat casino" — a study showed that at least half of those on "The List" had sneaked back onto a casino floor in Missouri.

It now appears that to the extent that there's much benefit at all to signing up to be on "The List," it comes from the decision to sign up in the first place, not from the enforcement it provides. You get caught sneaking into a casino, it's a Class B trespassing misdemeanor. You can get six months in jail, but usually it's just a fine.

In any 12-step program, Step No. 1 is to admit you have a problem that you can't handle by yourself. Only a small percentage of problem gamblers — 3 percent to 5 percent by most estimates — seek help.

Some studies suggest that the lifetime ban actually might deter some people from taking that first step. By making "The List" seem a little less onerous, the gaming commission hopes that maybe a few more people will ask for help. At least that's the new theory.

In 1996, when Missouri became the first state to adopt a lifetime voluntary exclusion list, the theory was that gambling addiction doesn't really have a "cure." Recovering from a gambling addiction, like recovering from an addiction to alcohol or other drugs, is a day-by-day process. There is nothing to suggest this has changed.

The gaming commission's rule change may get a few more people to ask for help. It may mean a few more bankruptcies, ruined families and suicides. As a state, we have decided that this is acceptable collateral damage in return for 11,700 jobs and nearly $500 million a year in state and local revenue.

The casinos will make a few extra bucks. They always do.

Copyright. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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Greg Allen August 31, 2011 | 1:51 p.m.

The description of compulsive gambling in comparison to other compulsions such as alcoholism looks pretty accurate. However, unless The List is publicly available, it is as anonymous as AA. Any attempt to make it 'less onerous' so that more people would be willing to add their names to it is a red herring.

Gambling interests wouldn't be concerned about the welfare of their customers if not required by law. They're in business to make money. Who is behind the desire to have compulsive gamblers return to the casinos? As I recall from hearing FBI testimony during a stint on grand jury, 'follow the money' to begin the investigation.

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