The Diceman Cometh: Will Gambling Be a Bad Bet for Your Town?

By Reno, Ronald A. | Policy Review, March-April 1996 | Go to article overview

The Diceman Cometh: Will Gambling Be a Bad Bet for Your Town?


Reno, Ronald A., Policy Review


Flush with a handful of money he had just won at a bowling tournament, Joe Koslowski invited some friends to celebrate with him at the nearby Atlantic City casinos. Joe, then 16, and all his buddies were allowed in despite the age limit of 21. Once inside, Joe's good fortune continued; he parlayed his bowling winnings into a couple of thousand dollars.

After his initial success, Joe returned to the casinos frequently. His winning streak eventually ended, but his taste for the thrill of gambling did not. Once out of cash, he opened credit accounts under family members' names, using cash advances from the credit cards to gamble.

The whole scheme finally came crashing in on Joe last year, after he had amassed $20,000 in debt. Now at age 20, Joe, who had no prior criminal record, is serving time in a Pennsylvania federal prison for credit-card fraud.

Joe is one of tens of thousands of young people who fall victim to America's gambling obsession every year. At least three-quarters of the nation's teens engage in some form of gambling. Much of it, of course, is fairly innocuous and occurs among peers: weekend poker games, betting on football, the annual NCAA basketball tournament pool. Adolescents have become increasingly adept, however, at gaining access to state-sanctioned gambling--lotteries, casinos, electronic poker--which often becomes a bridge to compulsive or addictive behavior. In 1995, University of Minnesota researchers reported that more than half of underage Minnesota teens surveyed had participated in some form of legalized gambling. An earlier survey of Atlantic City high-school students revealed that nearly two-thirds had gambled at the city's casinos.

It is becoming painfully apparent that the only jackpot awaiting many of these young people is a life out of control:

More than a million adolescents are already addicted to gambling, according to Durand Jacobs, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Loma Linda University Medical School and an expert on youth gambling. Further, Jacobs says, the gambling addiction rate among teens is three times that among adults. In a recent review of major youth-gambling studies in North America, Howard Shaffer, director of the Center for Addiction Studies at Harvard Medical School, concluded that roughly one in six teens experiences gambling-related problems, while about 6 percent are actually addicted, or pathological, gamblers.

The New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, which operates a national toll-free hotline (1-800-GAMBLER),4,300 times in 1994, accounting for 11 percent of total calls. Ed Looney, the council's executive director, says many of these young people find themselves in desperate straits. He tells of a call regarding a 16-year- old who had slit his wrists after losing $6,000--four years of newspaper delivery earnings--on the lottery in a single day. He tells of the college student from the Midwest who dropped out of school because he lost his tuition money gambling; of the 19-year-old New Jersey youth who sold his car for a fraction of its value so he could get back into the casinos; of the numerous calls from kids too scared to go back to school because they can't pay back their bookies.

The phenomenon of youth gambling is not entirely new, but its rapid growth and startling magnitude is alarming. Says Valerie Lorenz, head of Baltimore's Center for Compulsive Gambling, "We never saw a teenage gambler 10 years ago. Now we see them regularly."Moreover, the most addictive forms of gambling--eagerly promoted by more and more state governments in search of tax revenue--can produce ripple effects in young lives that undermine families, communities, and civic order. As we move into the next century, Shaffer says, "We're going to have major issues with youth gambling that will equal or eclipse the problems that we have with substance abuse."

A Slippery Slope?

Experts draw a distinction between the "problem" gambler and the "pathological" gambler. …

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