You Bet Your Life

From casinos to instant lotteries, the games compulsive gamblers play can put a lot more than their money at risk

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HealthDay Reporter

SATURDAY, Sept. 29, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The explosion of gambling outlets across the United States in the last two decades has produced windfalls for dozens of state treasuries and helped transform struggling communities and Native American tribes alike.

And patrons are having a ball betting on a dream. So what's not to like?

Plenty, if you're among the growing group of compulsive gamblers who didn't even know they were at risk till it was too late.

"The huge expansion of gambling has had a major impact on problem gambling," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, which seeks to increase public awareness of pathological gambling.

In 1975, only 13 states sponsored lotteries. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia offer them. And 48 states are now home to some form of legalized betting, from casinos to riverboat gambling, according to a 1999 review by the President's National Gambling Impact Study Commission.

Not surprisingly, the number of Americans betting on lotteries increased during that same time, from 24 percent of the population to 52 percent. And the number of people wagering at casinos tripled, from 10 per cent to 29 percent of the population, the study found.

And those statistics spell trouble, says Ed Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, one of the nation's pioneers in the treatment of pathological gambling.

The percentage of people who get addicted to gambling hasn't changed -- approximately 20 percent of those who gamble have trouble controlling it, including 5 percent who go on to suffer severe financial and personal setbacks. But the jump in the number of gamblers means there are now many more people who can't handle their gambling.

"In 1983, the year our gambling telephone hotline started, we had 600 calls from people wanting help," Looney says. "Last year, we had 20,000."

Visits to the group's Web site also have surged -- from approximately 90,000 in 1997 to as many as 75,000 a month last year.

The young and old are both particularly vulnerable to gambling problems.

"We see so much on the college level," says Looney, who notes that the approximately half-dozen studies on adolescent gambling found that young people have a higher addiction rate than adults.

"It's because of a lack of information," he adds. "Our kids are inundated with betting data, from point spreads to Pick 6's-Pick 4's to scratch-off cards at McDonald's. But they're not getting information about the downside of gambling."

Also fueling the problem has been the huge growth of gambling on the Internet, where a credit card is all you need to place a bet. "In 1995, there was one site; now there are over 1,000," Looney says.

Seniors get snared in the gambling trap for very different reasons.

"Many of these people don't have anything to do and fill up their time going to casinos," Looney says. "They've lost their spouses, are lonely and, although they have never gambled before, like the camaraderie of taking a bus to a casino."

About 5 million Americans are compulsive, or pathological, gamblers, and another 15 million are at risk of slipping into that category, says Arnie Wexler, a one-time compulsive gambler who now counsels problem gamblers. His clients include schools worried about underage gambling, corporations, even casinos that want to identify employees with gambling problems.

"It's such a hidden disease," Wexler says of his former addiction, which he curbed by attending a 12-step program. "When I went for help, I owed [the equivalent] of three years' salary... but I still went to work every day wearing a suit and tie."

A disease it is, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Since 1980, the APA has listed pathological gambling as a compulsive disorder. And many doctors think it has a physiological component, too.

"Pathological gambling is a compulsion, and there is some evidence that there's a different brain circuitry in people with a gambling disorder," says Dr. David Yamins, a psychiatrist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. "No one knows if they are born with it, or if it develops over time."

Whatever the source, Yamins says, compulsive gambling is tough to treat.

"We don't have medication or treatment that can really affect a lot of addicts," he says. "The best way is in a group, like a 12-step program. But a lot of people don't go for treatment. They are too preoccupied with their behavior and don't see it as something to change."

There is some hope on the horizon, though. A study earlier this year by University of Minnesota researchers found that the drug naltrexone reduced the urge to gamble in almost three-quarters of the 20 participants. The drug is used to treat alcohol and drug addiction, and more studies are needed to assess its potential benefits to compulsive gamblers, the researchers say.

What To Do

If you think you have problem with gambling, there are a number of Web sites you can visit, including Gamblers Anonymous, The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, and The National Council on Problem Gambling.

The American Psychiatric Association also has a warning about the dangers of Internet gambling. (To read the warning, you'll need the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download by clicking here.)

SOURCES: Interviews with Edward Looney, executive director, Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, Trenton; Arnie Wexler, pathological gambling counselor and consultant, Bradley Beach, N.J.; Keith Whyte, executive director, National Council on Problem Gambling, Washington, D.C.; David Yamins, M.D., clinical psychiatrist, Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.

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