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Tumbling Dice conference highlights problem gambling

TEMECULA, Calif. - Last week a three-day conference to bring awareness to a growing problem - pathological or problem gambling - began in Sacramento and concluded here Oct. 17 with more than 40 treatment professionals, tribal leaders, state officials and gaming industry professionals in attendance.

The "Tumbling Dice" conference, an event to mark the first annual Responsible Gambling Awareness Week, was co-sponsored by the California Nations Indian Gaming Association and the non-profit California Council on Problem Gambling.

Experts told the assembled group that pathological gamblers - those who won't stop gambling despite devastating consequences - constitute about 5 percent of the U.S. adult population, with 1.75 million in California alone.

The problem has spread as legalized gambling has become more accessible and widespread, said Richard Rosenthal, director of the UCLA Center for Gambling Studies, who spoke at the Oct. 15 events in Sacramento. Studies show that Indians are at a greater risk than some other ethnic groups for developing the problem, he said.

"We know that cultures that are ambitious, that value success, cultures that are shame-based ? tend to have more gambling and problems with gambling," Rosenthal said.

Ethnically diverse California has more pathological gamblers, he said, when compared with states with a more homogenous population like Iowa. And because of the challenges presented by language and cultural differences - some groups don't seek traditional treatment sources - it's difficult to reach them, Rosenthal stated.

The problem may only grow larger in California, the sixth largest state in gambling before casino gambling emerged, if it edges out Nevada for first place in the coming years as experts predict.

That's why tribes insisted on addressing the problem and taking action now, said Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro. "Help to those who need help is the responsible thing to do," he said.

Daniel Blackwood, director of the Evolution Group, an Albuquerque, N.M. center that treats pathological gamblers, praised the assertive role California Indians have taken by pushing to have the state earmark money for problem gambling.

More research needs to be done on problem gambling, said Philip Satre, chairman of the board for Harrah's. Not enough data exists, he said, on its connection to other addictions; on the failure rates of patients to overcome problem gambling; or on how effective the "hard minimization" techniques some Canadian casinos use to mitigate the problem, like prominently displaying clocks or prohibiting smoking.

And when compared to substance abuse, pathological gambling is more difficult to treat, stated Gary Lange, counselor and addiction specialist. Unlike drugs or alcohol, it's an easier addiction to hide, there's no test to detect it, and most people don't consider it to be a problem, he said.

Problem gambling is a growing problem for California's adolescents too, Macarro said. Today's youth belong to the first generation that must cope with a state lottery and casinos spread throughout the state, making gambling more prevalent and accessible than ever, and with a society more accepting of gambling.

The conference comes on the heels of the state legislature's action last month of giving $3 million, from a special fund financed by some Indian casino tribes, to the Office of Problem and Pathological Gambling. The agency was created six years ago; however, it lacked funds and staff until now.

Signs that someone has a problem with gambling:

*Will gamble for long periods of time, resulting in poor physical grooming

*Makes desperate statements while gambling

*Tends to gamble alone

*Has written bad checks to casinos

*Borrows or attempts to borrow money from casino staff or other patrons

*Makes frequent trips to an ATM, especially before and after midnight to avoid withdrawal limits

*Takes cash advances from credit card