By Stone, Michael R.
Techniques , Vol. 81, No. 8
Imagine what a gambling addict looks like. If the mind's eye pictures anything other than a panorama of human life--including the face gracing the mirror every morning--it's wrong. Identified by the American Psychiatric Association in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the Mental Disorders as pathological gambling, it is the equal-opportunity addiction of the 21st century.
Prior to 1973, legal gambling in the United States consisted of casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, pari-mutuel wagering on horses in some states, and the more pervasive bingo. The advent of the first lottery in New Hampshire began a 30-year explosion in the growth of gambling. Today, only two states--Hawaii and Utah--do not have some form of government-sanctioned, legal gambling. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, legal gaming revenues were about $80 billion in 2005. Gambling businesses hire thousands of workers, and businesses that serve the gambling industry hire thousands more. Governments rely more and more on revenue from gambling taxes to provide public services. Education is the beneficiary of gambling revenue in many states.
Gambling's Dark Side
Like any activity--even actions as necessary as eating and exercise--gambling can be pursued to the extreme. When that happens, the effects on the individual and the people he or she touches--family, friends, coworkers, employers--can be disastrous. Based on studies from the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions and the National Opinion Research Center, an estimated two million Americans are pathological gamblers. Problem gamblers, who exhibit one or more pathological gambling criterion, number four to six million. There is no average or typical pathological gambler. Although different types of gambling may appeal to some segments of society, callers to gambler helplines, attendees at Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and individuals who seek professional counseling are rich, poor, young, old, and from all racial, social and demographic backgrounds.
Gamblers are skilled at hiding their addiction, even from themselves. The addicted gambler continues to pursue gambling action beyond financial means. At the depth of the addiction, the pathological gambler is interested only in staying "in action," making the bet. Winning only serves the purpose of gaining money for more bets. They exhaust all sources of funds, borrowing and credit, frequently turning to theft. The estimated social cost to families and communities from bankruptcy, divorce, job loss, health care costs and criminal justice costs associated with problem gambling was $6.7 billion last year, the National Council on Problem Gambling reports. Problem gambling is associated with higher incidences of bankruptcy, domestic abuse and suicide.
A "yes" answer to either of two questions can indicate whether an individual may have a gambling problem: Have you ever felt the need to bet more and more money? Have you ever had to lie to people important to you about how much you gambled?
Fortunately, individuals can recover from pathological gambling, and help is available through Gamblers Anonymous or professional counseling. For those who need help coping with the behavior of a pathological gambler, Gain-Anon offers services. A toll-free, confidential national helpline is available at 800-522-4700. Trained telephone counselors will answer the call and can provide referral to nearby Gamblers Anonymous or Gam-Anon meetings, or to professional gambler counselors.
Effect on Youth
Last year, surveys indicated that more than 80 percent of adult Americans gambled at least once. Gamblers come from all demographic groups, which means that some educators are pathological gamblers. More problematic, statistics indicate the percentage of youth who are pathological and problem gamblers is higher than adults. Gambling feeds on the natural risk-taking of youth. Twenty years ago the "rite of passage" often was the first legal alcoholic drink at age 21; now it's the first visit to the casino. …