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Problem gamblers aplenty in state

Tuesday, October 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:27 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It’s probably safe to say these days that most people know at least one problem gambler. Some are addicted to bingo or video poker, while others can’t stay away from lottery tickets or casinos. Like those addicted to alcohol or drugs, these people can’t resist games of chance.

Missouri gamblers were the subject of a recent study by Harvard researchers, who sought to determine the extent of problem gambling in the state. According to their report, about 39,000 Missourians had faced a serious gambling problem in the past year. The study, funded by a grant from the Port Authority of Kansas City, focused on more than 5,000 individuals who had voluntarily excluded themselves from state casinos since 1996. Under the self-exclusion program, these folks subject themselves to prosecution for trespassing if they attempt to enter casinos. These individuals are, apparently, seeking help big time. So far, it is estimated that 13 percent of Missouri’s problem gamblers are seeking that kind of assistance.

Of course, people who have trouble staying away from gambling have always been with us. I can remember as a child being warned against gambling by being shown someone in the neighborhood who squandered the family’s income on dice, cards or number games. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how many gambling opportunities were available in poorer neighborhoods, where every dime counted.

People who spend their lives scrambling for a living are easy victims, ready to grab at any chance that might improve their lot. I’ve known many people who thought it was only through luck that their lives would change for the better.

Many groups and individuals opposed to gambling understand this. They try to convince potential problem gamblers of the dangers involved in experimenting with games of chance. As the saying goes, that’s a hard nut to crack. Even before the days when television began to parade “instant millionaires” before the public on a regular basis, it was difficult to sell the idea that the only route to success was years of hard work. Certainly among the masses of humanity, a few examples of this principle could be found, but in general, the exceptions tended to far outweigh the rule.

But as the numbers of people who become rich through luck or instant celebrity grow, the old “Protestant ethic” loses more ground. So, as they watch their hopes steadily slip down the drain, the prospect of instant riches beckons.

And it is also true that as the states become more dependent on gaming revenue to support services, more opportunities emerge to tempt people to try their luck. This is just one of the many Catch-22s that are becoming the norm of our daily lives. In so many ways, people see themselves as doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t.

Are people who try to support their families on minimum wage better off paying a rent-to-own firm for the privilege of borrowing substandard furniture that they will never own or spending their salaries on lottery tickets for the millions they will never win?

Should individuals who can’t afford to buy their prescription drugs in the United States buy them from Canada or risk death or catastrophic illness by doing without? In other words, have we painted ourselves into so many corners that there is no way out?

I have friends who say they wish they had the money to buy the gas it takes to drive to their nearest casino. And some admit, painfully, that they would just as soon enjoy the few minutes of hope and anticipation they experience at the tables watching their money disappear than the despair they feel handing out their meager dollars to grasping landlords and greedy bill collectors.

What price is poverty? It costs in more ways than missing a few meals, being deprived of adequate health care and watching your children cry themselves to sleep at night because you can’t afford to buy their gym shorts. Sometimes, it drives people down roads to places where they lose themselves in the tangled web of addiction to gambling, alcohol and drugs, often a combination of the three.

Certainly, not all problem gamblers are poor people. They come from all walks of life. But if you are fortunate enough not to be poor, help is easier to obtain.

“When gambling is first introduced in an area, you have an emergence of problem gambling, but over time you see a declining incidence of problem gambling behavior,” said Kevin Mullally, director of the Missouri Gaming Commission.

These kinds of studies are significant in that they inform us of the consequences of the actions we take, when as citizens, we act collectively to pass laws and initiate changes in state government. They provide us with an opportunity to change course if we find it advisable.

The next phase of this study, which will determine the effectiveness of self-exclusion on the participants in this program, will start later this year. Here’s to hoping.


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