Risk survey aims to assess problem gambling

Monday, February 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:52 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

Three new gambling-related questions added to a survey this year could shed light on the extent of problem gambling in Missouri.

The Missouri Alliance to Curb Problem Gambling will pay $15,000 for the addition of the questions to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey that helps states track public health problems. The BRFSS is conducted each year by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Currently, the alliance is using information gathered from national statistics, anecdotal information from state gambling treatment programs and the number of people seeking treatment to determine the scope of Missouri’s problem gambling, alliance Secretary Melissa Stephens said.

“There have been some studies done, but nothing statewide,” said Shelly Perez, the responsible gaming program coordinator for the Missouri Lottery.

The three new questions are aimed at determining whether the number of compulsive and problem gamblers in Missouri is higher than the national average. Of U.S. gamblers, between 0.6 percent to 1.5 percent are pathological gamblers with serious financial, emotional and family problems, Perez said. Another 3 to 5 percent are considered problem gamblers.

The health department added the questions to the survey after the alliance wrote a letter detailing Iowa’s success in tracking overall problem gambling statistics with their own survey, Stephens said.

“Hopefully, as Missouri is now doing, (other states) will start adding these questions to their surveys,” said Frank Biagioli, executive officer of the Iowa Gambling Treatment Program.

Before Iowa added the gambling questions to its 1998 BRFSS survey, the state relied on prevalence surveys of 1,500 Iowans conducted in 1989 and 1995. Now, the survey polls 3,600 Iowans over the age of 18. Biagioli said the most recent survey revealed that Iowa’s gambling problem is in line with the national statistics: About 1 percent of the people who said they gambled in the last 12 months admitted they had gambling-related problems.

“Some of our actions, in the public sector at least, have been keeping the numbers steady,” Biagioli said.

This year, the Missouri BRFSS survey will poll 4,500 Missourians over the age of 18. The survey has its limits, though. It is self-reported, which means the person being polled must admit he or she has been gambling, and the questions don’t elicit comprehensive information.

“If the survey would indicate a much higher number than the national average,” Stephens said, “we would need a more in-depth survey.”

Once Missouri’s problem gambling situation is known, the state will be able to improve upon what Perez called “one of the most active (problem gambling) programs in the country.”

Currently, Missouri gamblers and their families can receive free treatment and counseling from the state health department. Gamblers can also put their names on a list vowing never to set foot in a casino again. If they are caught in a casino, they can be arrested for trespassing and forced to return their winnings to the casino.

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