Karen Jacobus on Gambling Addiction

In an effort to create new jobs and state revenue, Governor Deval Patrick has endorsed the establishment of three casinos in the Commonwealth, including one in western Massachusetts. Despite the predicted economic benefits of casino gaming, critics argue the plan has hidden costs, including a predictable increase in problem gambling. Questioning Authority spoke with MHC's coordinator of health education, Karen Jacobus, who has worked with the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling for the past ten years, educating colleges and substance abuse counselors about gambling addiction.

QA: Recent studies indicate about 6 percent of the state's adults have experienced a gambling problem in their lifetime. Is casino gambling likely to increase this statistic, and is there more risk than in playing the state lottery?

KJ: Let me begin by saying that the vast majority of people can gamble without problems. They understand that gambling is about chance and can set limits on how much time and money they will spend and stick to their plan. These people are not experiencing any negative consequences as a result of their gambling.

The form of gambling is not really the issue. Gambling opportunities for Massachusetts residents have increased considerably during the past ten years due to more lottery games with multimillion dollar prizes, casino boats in certain coastal communities, the introduction of simulcast wagering at racetracks, more sporting events broadcast on cable TV, greater media attention to the stock market, and easy access to Internet gambling. It is more about the combination of gambling availability at present levels, as well as with expansion--and the need to make sure there are comprehensive services to educate, intervene, and treat problem gambling.

QA: Who is most likely to develop a gambling addiction? Are college students at risk?

KJ: Virtually anyone can be at risk for developing a gambling problem, including men and women, young and old, from every religious, racial, and socioeconomic background. Recent studies indicate that 8 million Americans have had problems associated with gambling. The rates of problem gambling for adolescents is nearly 19 percent, and for college students it is 16 percent.

Gambling is glamorized through advertising, publicity about large jackpots and payoffs, and the popularity of televised poker games. While it is understood that young people participate in risk-taking behaviors like gambling, this can be problematic since most students have limited incomes and access to easy credit, and a win can create an illusion that gambling is an easy and safe way to make money. We have not done enough to educate them about the risks of gambling.

QA: What are the signs that someone has a problem with gambling?

KJ: Here are the signs:

  • Preoccupation with gambling or with ways to get money to gamble;
  • Spending more time, money, or emotional energy on gambling than can be reasonably afforded;
  • Returning to gamble again as soon as possible to recoup losses or increase winnings;
  • Gambling to cope with unpleasant feelings such as depression, anxiety, and helplessness, etc.;
  • Continued gambling despite adverse consequences that affect family, relationships, and educational or vocational pursuits;
  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop or control gambling.

QA: Research indicates about half of all problem gamblers have also had problems with alcohol or other drugs. Is there a connection?

KJ: Unlike alcohol or substance abuse, problem gambling has few easily recognizable signs. It is estimated that about half (35-50 percent) of all compulsive gamblers have been dependent on alcohol or other drugs. Studies show that cocaine users are far more likely to develop a gambling problem than people who do not use cocaine. Children of parents with gambling or substance abuse problems are at greater risk for problem gambling than children of parents who are addiction-free.

QA: What should the state do to minimize or prevent problem gambling? Do programs already exist to address problems caused by lottery gambling?

KJ: There should be more funding to provide education and treatment to address the issues of problem gambling. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health/Bureau of Substance Abuse Services provides problem gambling treatment services, and there are six centers located throughout the state. Appointments to see a gambling treatment counselor can be made during regular business hours, Monday through Friday, between 9 am and 5 pm. State funding is available for people who need financial assistance. Counseling is available to anyone who is concerned about gambling: those who gamble, their families, and/or significant others.

QA: Part of the governor's casino plan includes a new Public Health Trust Fund that, funded by the casinos at a rate of 2.5 percent of their gross revenues, would support gambling prevention and addiction services, as well as services addressing other social problems such as domestic abuse. How does this compare to efforts by other states or countries?

KJ: Currently the Commonwealth's gambling funding is not on par with other states. Massachusetts has one of the most successful lotteries in the nation, yet in a 2005-2006 national survey of publicly funded problem gambling services in the United States, it ranked nineteenth in per capita expenditures to address problem gambling. The Massachusetts per capita expenditure of $0.12 compares poorly to the $1.90 per capita committed by Delaware, the state ranked number one. Canadian problem gambling services stand out as the model, with 1 to 2 percent of government gaming revenue being committed to problem gambling. Therefore the governor's proposal of 2.5 percent would place Massachusetts in the forefront.

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