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Hearings prod New Jersey toward confronting compulsive gambling

New Jersey is making a lot of money from gambling -- the state lottery, Atlantic City's casinos, and horse racing -- but not a penny has been spent to aid the growing number of compulsive gamblers in the state.

A series of public hearings on compulsive gambling has produced testimony that the problem has reached "epidemic proportions" since the casinos opened in Atlantic City 2 1/2 years ago.

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New Jersey's revenue from gambling will be approximately $290 million in fiscal year 1981, which ends next June 31, According to state estimates. About casinos, and $15 million from race tracks. To foster greater interest in the lottery, the state plans to spend $3 million on advertising.

Gov. Brendan Byrne (D) vetoed legislation last summer that would have allocated $40,000 to set up an office for compulsive gamblers within the state health department. The legislation has been strongly recommended by the department.

Mr. Bryne, who says bringing gambling to Atlantic City is one of his three major achievements as governor, has repeatedly stated tht he does not think compulsive gambling is substantial problem in New Jersey.

Yet thre is mounting evidence the problem is great and growing, according to the National Council on Compulsive Gambling, a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to helping those addicted to gambling. The council points out that 40 percent of all the mail it gets from gamblers seeking help is from New Jerseyites. It also says that before the advent of casino gambling in Atlantic City there were 15 chapters of Gamblers Anonymous in New Jersey; today there are 26.

In a major attempt to increase public and private awareness of the problems of addicted gamblers in New Jersey, the Institutions, Health, and Welfare Committee of the state General Assembly plans to hold hearings on compulsive gambling within the next month.

The dramatic kind o testimony expected "is sure to make it impossible for Governor Byrne to pretend there is no problem," says Assemblyman Chuck Hardwick (R) of Union.

"The state's responsibility is particularly accute because we promote gambling, says Hardwick adds.

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Arnold Wexier, vice-president of the National Council on compulsive Gambling, says there are 375,000 compulsive gamblers in New Jersey.

"The general attitude of the politicians is that gambling is an easy, painless way to raise money," Mr. Wexler says. "But it costs the state money in crime, welfare, food stamps, and prison terms, not to mention the emotional stress it puts on families."

The take is high at Atlantic City's casinos. In January, the revenues from the three open casinos were $39 million; by July, the same three were making $65 million. In August, a fourth casino opened, and a fifth is due to open shortly. A dozen more are in various stages of construction.

Ironically, the first state-sponsored program to help addicted gamblers was in a state with no casinos. The Maryland Legislature appropriated $100,000 in March 1978 for a state treatment center for compulsive gamblers.

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