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Compulsive gambling: Arizona tribes step up to the plate

As we've discussed in previous editions of this column, the proliferation of gaming opportunities across the U.S., including lotteries, racetracks, and commercial and tribal casinos, has bestowed numerous financial benefits to the various players, including many in Indian country.

While many stereotypical problems normally associated with casinos, organized crime, prostitution, drug abuse and the like, have generally not materialized in Indian country, one potential stigma lurks in the background, that of compulsive gamblers. As researchers attempt to define and quantify the extent of this problem, many tribes across the nation and particularly in Arizona, have led the way in funding for treatment and education.

"We salute the tribes' responsible gaming programs," said Don Hulen, executive director of the Arizona Council on Problem Gambling, in a recent interview. "What's here is here because they have partnered [with us] and put up the money to provide the programs. On their own they've done free seminars, open to the general public, about compulsive gambling. There's just nobody else who will do that. They're quiet, they don't toot their own horns and they don't get the recognition that they deserve."

Hulen, who also sits on his organization's national council, noted that previous efforts by the state of Arizona to establish problem gambling treatment programs have largely been chaotic failures. Arizona's gaming tribes, however, have donated all the funding for the state's current educational and awareness programs and counselor training and certification programs. Tribal members have been educated on the problem in tribal schools. Gaming tribes have posted ACPG's help-line sign and placed collateral educational materials in their casinos.

"It's true," Hulen reiterated. "If it wasn't for tribal gaming, there would be no funding. None of it would have occurred without Indian gaming and without Arizona's Native Americans ? In the Indian way which I respect; quietly, unassuming, without fanfare, without demands, with no strings attached, [they 've made] possible everything that's available in Arizona ? It hasn't been a tremendous amount of money. It's not like back East where the bigger [gaming] tribes make billions of dollars. But the tribes [here] are the ones who have stepped up to the plate."

Hulen specifically mentioned the Tohono O'odham Nation, who "alone provides us with just about half of our total budget," and the Salt River Maricopa Pima Community as leaders in the efforts to help compulsive gamblers.

So who are compulsive gamblers, how prevalent are they, and what can be done to help them?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, pathological gambling is a disorder that essentially features "persistent and recurrent maladaptive gambling behavior ? that disrupts personal, family, or vocational pursuits." APA further stipulates that a gambler meet at least five of ten specified criteria to be considered pathological. The "problem" gambler will meet three or four of the criteria, while the "at-risk" gambler will exhibit one or two. Those criteria, similar in some ways to characteristics of alcoholics, include:

oA preoccupation with gambling;

oA higher tolerance, or need to wager increasing amounts of money;

o Exhibition of withdrawal symptoms when not gambling;

oUsing gambling as an escape from personal problems or moodiness;

oChasing one's losses, or trying to "get even;"

oLying to others about the extent of gambling;

oA loss of control over efforts to reduce or cease gambling;

oCommitting illegal acts to finance gambling;

oRisking significant relationships or career/educational opportunities for gambling; and

oRelying on others for a financial bailout to cover losses.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission, in its 1999 report, cited three previous studies concluding that lifetime pathological gamblers comprised from 1.2 to 1.6 percent of the U.S. adult population, while the percentage of lifetime problem gamblers ranged from 1.5 to 3.9 percent.

In raw numbers, according to the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, this translates to approximately 2.5 million people, while another three million could be considered "problem" gamblers, those who "have gambling problems, but do not meet the psychiatric criteria for pathological gambling." Furthermore, NORC estimated that another 15 million American adults might be categorized as being "at risk of becoming problem gamblers." Men are more likely than women to be at risk for gambling problems, while the presence of a casino within 50 miles doubles the prevalence of both pathological and problem gamblers in any given locality.

Pathological and problem gamblers "probably account for about 15 percent of casino, lottery and pari-mutuel receipts" from surveyed gamblers, NGISC said, adding that the two groups "cost society approximately $5 billion per year and an additional $40 billion in lifetime costs for productivity reductions, social services, and creditor losses."

In addition, NGISC found that "pathological and problem gamblers are more likely than other gamblers or non-gamblers to have been on welfare, declared bankruptcy, and to have been arrested or incarcerated." Perhaps not surprisingly, "pathological gambling is found proportionally less often among people who are over 65, college graduates, and in households with incomes over $100,000 a year." But college graduates are more likely to become "at-risk" gamblers than people of other levels of education, NGISC said.

The costs to society inflicted by problem gambling are quite difficult to quantify, a fact confirmed by the Government Accounting Office in its April 2000 report entitled "Impact of gambling: Economic effects more measurable than social effects." This study focused exclusively on casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. but its conclusions are generally applicable.

According to GAO, the societal effects of pathological gamblers include destructive family behavior, greater participation in criminal activities and higher rates of suicide. Putting an actual cost measurement on these problems "is difficult because of hard-to-measure and hard-to-identify damages or emotional costs, such as the impact of addictive behaviors upon families." Because of the fact that gambling addicts often display other behavioral problems, including alcohol and drug abuse, "social scientists have not been able to isolate the amount of increased social costs caused by gambling," GAO reported. In other words, the destructiveness of pathological gamblers is manifested in other behavior, making it hard to tell if gambling causes them to drink to excess, or if excessive drinking results in reckless gambling, for example.

Furthermore, while the presence of a casino in a given community will provide economic effects that are concretely measurable within that community (employment, tax revenues generated, attraction of tourists, etc.) the "bulk of the social costs is exported elsewhere ? where the gamblers actually reside," GAO concluded.

Resources do exist to help addicts overcome their gambling problems. One group offering assistance is the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Problem Gambling, the parent organization to Hulen's group.

"We are neutral on gambling," Keith Whyte, the council's executive director, told Indian Country Today. "We're neither for it nor against it. But for 30 years, since 1972, we've been working to promote public awareness of [problem gambling] and to increase the resources available not only for problem gamblers, but also for all governments offering gaming, including tribal governments."

The NCPG's approach generally involves efforts to "nip gambling in the bud" so to speak, before it becomes a problem. But, as with alcoholics and drug addicts, the problem gambler has to recognize his or her problem and seek treatment.

"There are steps to take to deal with problem gambling, much like steps to deal with alcoholism," Whyte said. "We don't call on bars to be the be-all, end-all against alcoholism, just as we wouldn't want to do that with casinos or lotteries or tracks. Problem gambling is a societal, public health problem. We can't just attack it at the end. We know, from drug and alcohol abuse that prevention is much more cost-effective and better than waiting until someone goes bankrupt.

"The question is not so much counting numbers, but what you do about it," he added. Toward that end, the NCPG sponsors a free, confidential, 24-hour hotline that can be accessed from anywhere in the country. Based upon the caller's area code, he or she is routed to one of 26 call centers, each of which can direct the caller to resources in his or her specific area.

"We received 144,000 calls last year," Whyte said. "About 60 percent were the gamblers themselves and 40 percent were family members or loved ones" reporting a problem gambler and asking for help.

The NCPG's help-line is 1-800-522-4700.