PORTLAND, Ore. -- The dramatic rise of Indian gaming in the past decades
has brought the subject of problem gambling squarely into the public
debate. National Problem Gambling Awareness Week, March 6 -- 12, was staged
this year to educate gamblers and their families about how gambling can
become a problem as well as suggest ways in which compulsive gamblers can
The country has come a long way from the 1930s, when gambling was revived
in Nevada. According to Charles Wellford, professor of criminology and
criminal justice at the University of Maryland and author of the National
Justice Journal article, "When It's No Longer a Game: Pathological Gambling
in the United States," the present era of social gambling started in the
1960s with the first of the state lotteries. These "marked a major policy
shift -- away from mere tolerance on the part of the government and toward
active sponsorship and aggressive marketing."
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 initiated in the era of tribal
casinos that added yet another form of legalized, social gambling in
While increases in gambling over the past four decades have generated badly
needed funds for both tribes and states, no one ever said human beings act
wisely when they place bets in the gaming parlor. Different groups have
approached the topic in different ways. The state of Oregon, for example,
is only one of five states with video lottery games, and the Hopi and
Navajo tribes have consistently opposed opening casinos on their
"I was willing to drive two hours to park my butt for a day and a half or
more in front of a set of slot machines," said Jeff Davidson of Portland,
who thinks the video slots available at Oregon's restaurants and taverns
since July of 2005 just compound problems. "This problem is just going to
get worse with the proliferation of these games."
Louis Pitt, director of governmental affairs with the Confederated Tribes
of Warm Springs, said his tribe contributes to programs focused on
addressing problem gambling at the tribal and state level.
While he empathizes with those who cannot control their gambling, he
pointed out that it is not the only compulsion that plagues people in
modern society. "I wish people would get rid of those Baskin-Robbins
because I have a hard time getting by those," said Pitt. "The thing is that
people have to prioritize their lives and exercise their right to choose.
We have to think about what has higher importance in life -- family, God,
paying the bills."
Peter Walsh, program manager for a private gambling treatment center at
Cascadia Behavioral Health in Portland, concurred with Pitt. "People
usually say they don't have a gambling problem; they have a financial
problem. That's what brings it to their attention -- whether it's not being
able to pay the rent, or getting their house foreclosed on or their car
Walsh cited the case of one man who used to detour over 100 miles to the
Grand Ronde Tribe's Spirit Mountain Casino. He got a $600,000 line of
credit from a bank to pay bills, but nine months later it was gone --
burned up in craps at the casino. The man, who wants to remain anonymous,
eventually quit gambling, but said the task was "way harder than quitting
drinking. No comparison."
The National Indian Gaming Association works with the National Council on
Problem Gambling to help the 1 percent of individuals that the National
Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found to have what the
NRC terms "pathological gambling" problems. More, the study found that "the
availability of casinos within driving distance does not appear to affect
prevalence rates ... [and] a 1998 analysis of data on 100 communities
between 1980 and 1997 showed no significant change in per capita bankruptcy
in communities were casinos were introduced."
A more recent study, published in a 2005 issue of the American Journal of
Public Health, focused on problems within the Indian community
specifically. In a survey of more than 700 Indian veterans, researchers
found that 10 percent were problem gamblers and that alcohol abuse and
depression often accompany the compulsion.
Joely de la Torre, of California State University in San Francisco, studied
the current political debate on Indian gaming and found that "in many areas
like Arizona, North Dakota and Connecticut, Indian tribes are the primary
funding source for programs" designed to assist problem gamblers.