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For many teens, gambling starts at home

First it's a scratch of a Lotto ticket. Eventually, it could bestealing to support an addiction.

While still a teenager, Andy became a compulsive gambler. He took money from his parents, and he spent time in jail for other incidents of stealing to support his gambling habit.

"I realize now how quickly gambling can become a problem, especially for kids," says Andy, who uses just his first name when publicly discussing his past.

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"It is important to remember that compulsive gambling is an addiction just like alcoholism and drug dependency," he says. Now that he's 21, Andy dispenses advice to youngsters in his "Ask Andy" column on a new Web site sponsored by the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling called "WannaBet?"

In the United States, where people legally wager about $600 billion a year, there seems little doubt gambling has become a major problem among the young.

New data show one-third of all teens have played a state lottery within the past year, two-thirds have illegally engaged in some form of gambling, and teens are twice as likely to be problem gamblers as adults are. The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling reported last week that nearly 90 percent of high school students in the state had either purchased lottery tickets, bet on sports, played cards for money, or tried to gamble at casinos.

As gambling becomes more socially acceptable, the trend is increasing. Over the past 20 years, legalized gambling has spread to all but two states (Utah and Hawaii) and has increased about 3,000 percent. Legal sports betting and lotteries are ubiquitous. Gamblers need not travel to Las Vegas or Reno, Nev., to play blackjack or slot machines; 26 states now allow casino gambling. And Internet gambling sites - an estimated 140, most run from other countries - are a mouse-click away for youngsters with access to a credit card, either their own or one purloined from mom's purse.

HIS is the first generation of youth to be exposed to easy access to a wide variety of gambling venues, widespread gambling advertising, and general social approval for an inherently risky activity that was once prohibited,'' said Randy Stinchfield, a clinical psychologist at the University of Minnesota, speaking in November at the National Gambling Impact Study Commission in Las Vegas.

At the same time, new technologies are making gambling devices a lot like the interactive video games kids grow up playing. Such devices, where the outcome is based on chance, can give the illusion that skill determines the result, as it does in video games. And there's also the elements of danger and risk that seem to attract some young people much the way drugs, alcohol, and sex do.

"We're seeing a lot of cross-addictions," says the Rev. Tom Grey, a Methodist minister from Hanover, Ill., and executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

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A Harvard Medical School study shows that between 5 percent and 8 percent of adolescents are pathological gamblers, compared with 1 percent to 3 percent of adults. A survey of students at eight high schools in Connecticut showed that 24 percent had cut classes in order to gamble and 42 percent had gambled on school grounds.

Often, youth gambling starts with something in the family that appears harmless, like letting a child scratch a lottery ticket to look for a winning number or betting on family card games. Researchers at Iowa State University reported recently that most young gamblers interviewed said they were introduced to gambling by a relative. The Oregon Gambling Addiction Foundation found that 30 percent of all teens had played the state lottery, and most had gotten tickets from family members.

The gambling industry acknowledges the problem. The American Gaming Association (a Washington-based trade group representing gambling businesses) has set up a National Center for Responsible Gaming to sponsor programs related to underage gambling.

"This is an ideal vehicle with which to gain credibility and demonstrate our dedication to fighting problem gambling and to eliminating underage gambling altogether," says Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., president and chief executive officer of the American Gaming Association.

At the same time, 17 states now fund efforts to prevent and treat social problems that result from gambling.

Critics find it ironic that state and federal government agencies now are taking steps to counter the unwanted effects of an activity governments have been promoting as a way to help pay for education and other public services. The reason, says Mr. Grey, is that "government is addicted to the money."

Congress has taken some steps to address the issue. One proposal would ban Internet gambling in the US, but so far nothing has been enacted.

"Internet technology renders prohibition futile," according to Tom Bell, director of telecommunications and technology studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "The Internet's inherently open architecture already hobbles law-enforcement officials, while relentless technological innovation ensures they will only fall farther and farther behind," he told the National Gambling Impact Study Commission meeting in Chicago last May.

The national commission, which has finished its field hearings, is scheduled to make its recommendations in June. Its members, who represent all sides of the issue, agree much more needs to be done to combat youth gambling.

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