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Coming Up Snake Eyes

by Ed Vitagliano
April 10, 2006
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(AgapePress) - - Apparently Americans have more money than they know what to do with.

According to U.S. News & World Report's Kim Clark, each year Americans lose $80 billion to gambling in its various forms -- from casinos to bingo to online gambling to horse racing.

Gamblers get plenty of opportunities to play. Forty-eight states have some form of legalized gambling, says Jeffrey Kluger of Time -- and that does not include the Internet, which is quickly becoming a wide-open portal for those with an itch to bet.

Even by 1996, says Kluger, the annual take for the U.S. gambling industry was "more than that from movies, music, cruise ships, spectator sports and live entertainment combined."

Empty Promises
When most people think of legalized gambling, places like casinos are probably the first image to pop into their minds. Small wonder, since there are more than 1,200 casinos, card rooms and bingo parlors in the U.S. And casino gambling is extremely popular.

Clark says that about 73 million Americans visited a casino in 2005 -- up from the more than 53 million that did so in 2000. The rate at which patrons visit casinos is growing, too. The average gambler visits a casino six times a year, which is almost double the number of trips 10 years ago.

But state lotteries are also extremely popular -- 42 states run them, according to the Education Commission of the States (ECS). Total lottery profits in the U.S. in 2004 amounted to almost $14 billion.

How did these lotteries spread so far and so wide in the U.S.? Marjorie Coeyman says in The Christian Science Monitor, "Many states sell the lottery concept to the public with the promise that a large portion of the proceeds will benefit public schools."

In fact, as of February 2006, of the 42 state lotteries, 24 earmark some proceeds for education funding. Politicians promising that lottery profits will be sunk into better schools and more teachers is, after all, an easier sell than raising taxes.

But like many things in politics, empty promises are easy to make. ECS researcher Molly Burke says, "The proceeds from state lotteries are less than you might think. Even if they're all earmarked toward education, it isn't a huge amount. It's never quite as much as states would like the schools and the taxpayers to think."

For example, the organization says that what New York funnels to schools from its state lottery amounts to only 5 percent of all public school revenue. Only 2 percent of public school funds comes from the lottery in California.

Moreover, say critics, state legislatures that receive lottery proceeds for education often simply lower their education expenditures coming out of the general fund. In the end, the schools see very little net gain.

"It's not a bonus for the schools but a substitution," argues Rev. Richard McGowan, professor at Boston College's Carroll School of Management.

In fact, Coeyman says that one study that examined Ohio's lottery (which directs 100 percent of lottery winnings into education) found that spending on education actually shrunk as a result.

"The study demonstrated that, after Ohio's 1974 promise to devote all lottery winnings to public schools, state spending on education dropped from 42 percent of its total budget in 1973 to 29 percent in 1994," she says.

Poker-Faced Kids
With lotteries often being sold to voters as a way to help school kids, it is ironic that the gambling craze sweeping the adult world is sucking many kids in as well.

Poker is especially hot right now among the nation's youth. According to the 2005 National Annenberg Risk Survey of Youth (NARSY), conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, the rate of young people age 14 to 22 who play for money each month increased 20 percent in just one year.

"Based on our latest estimates, there are approximately 2.9 million young people between the ages of 14 and 22 who are gambling on cards on a weekly basis," the Center said. "Over 80 percent of these youth are male."

The Annenberg survey found that 37 percent of males in high school and 50 percent of those in college reported gambling on cards at least once a month.

"The word, conservatively, is 'epidemic,'" Edward Looney, executive director of the New Jersey-based Council on Compulsive Gambling, told USA Today.

The increased interest of young people in gambling has, not surprisingly, spilled over to Internet gambling. Between 2004 and 2005, the percentage of young men who reported weekly gambling online more than doubled, with nearly 20 percent of males saying they engage in Internet gambling at least once a month.

Annenberg estimates that more than half a million young people gamble online every week -- most being under age 21.

Unfortunately, online gambling may be even more problematic than other forms. A Brown University study found that Internet gamblers who get addicted usually do so within a single year -- a much faster rate than gambling addicts who play more traditional forms, whose addiction takes an average of three-and-a-half years.

Why have poker and other forms of gambling become so popular among youth? For one thing, experts cite the popularity of poker shows on television networks, such as ESPN and Bravo. But others point to the fact that gambling, in general, is losing its negative image.

"Gambling has become a more mainstream activity," says Romer, although he says its impact on youth, especially, is worrisome.

Paying the Price
That danger is what motivates Jeffrey Derevensky, who helps head up the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours at McGill University in Montreal. He believes adolescents should be warned about the dangers of gambling.

"We go into schools and try to teach students that gambling is dangerous and potentially addictive, just like drugs or alcohol," Derevensky told the McGill Reporter. "We also try to teach them that it depends on luck and not on skill, so they won't equate it with video games .... The students are very receptive to our message because they all seem to know someone who is in trouble because of gambling. The resistance we get is mostly from educators and parents. Some schools don't want us to come to class to talk about gambling because they don't see the point."

But there is a point. Derevensky estimates that 4-8 percent of youth in North America have a serious gambling problem, with another 10-15 percent being at risk.

NARSY Director Dan Romer is also concerned. "The rising rate of card playing and overall gambling is worrisome," he said. "Young people are more prone to addiction, and increased exposure to gambling during the adolescent years increases the chances of developing gambling-related problems."

But gambling addiction is not simply a danger for the young. Adults, too, are finding that gambling problems are ruining their lives, families, finances and careers. One study estimated that 2.7 percent of adults are either pathological or problem gamblers. (See "Do You Have a Gambling Problem?" at conclusion of this article.)

While at first glance that may seem like a small percentage, it should be viewed in the wider context of other addiction phenomena. For example, 3.6 percent of Americans have a drug abuse or drug dependency problem, and yet that problem gets plenty of publicity.

For critics, it only makes sense that in states where there is more exposure to legalized gambling, more people will become enticed -- and overcome -- by its power to addict.

Statistics bear this out. According to The Christian Science Monitor, a study of Nevada's gambling industry in 2002 found that 6.4 percent of the population in that state were either pathological or problem gamblers -- more than double the nationwide figure of 2.7 percent.

"One not unexpected result was that the prevalence rate in Nevada was higher than in virtually every other state that we looked at," Rachel Volberg, a gambling-impact researcher who helped lead the Nevada study, told the newspaper. "That obviously speaks to the impact of exposure."

Kluger agrees. "What makes people start gambling may also be a function of availability. A 1999 study ordered by the U.S. Congress found that people who live within 50 miles of a casino have two times as much risk of developing a gambling problem as those living farther away."

Nevertheless, the gambling industry -- with support from many state legislators -- continues to push the expansion of casinos, lotteries and the like.

But before voters roll the dice when asked to legalize gambling, they may want to remember that at least some of their neighbors will come up snake eyes.


The Book on Gambling in U.S.
(from various government and news sources):

  • 48 states allow some form of legalized gambling.
  • 300 major Internet sites offer poker online.
  • 6 million Americans placed a bet online last year.
  • 1,200 casinos, card rooms and bingo parlors are open.
  • 73 million Americans patronized casinos, card parlors or bingo halls in 2005.
  • 80 billion dollars are lost by Americans each year on all forms of gambling.

Do You Have a Gambling Problem?

The National Council on Problem Gambling recommends that if a person can respond "yes" to any of the following statements, they should consider seeking assistance from a professional.

...You have often gambled longer than you had planned.
...You have often gambled until your last dollar was gone.
...Thoughts of gambling have caused you to lose sleep.
...You have used your income or savings to gamble while letting bills go unpaid.
...You have made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling.
...You have broken the law or considered breaking the law to finance your gambling.
...You have borrowed money to finance your gambling.
...You have felt depressed or suicidal because of your gambling losses.
...You have been remorseful after gambling.
...You have gambled to get money to meet your financial obligations.

Resources


Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article appears in the April 2006 issue.

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