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How gambling affects skeptical Generation Y

Youths today recognize evils of betting, but are more susceptible to

There's fresh evidence this week that the spread of gambling in America is having a big impact on the nation's teenagers.

First, there's the most-prominent recommendation of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission - a group set to report results from its two-year study to President Clinton today. It's advocating that the legal age for all types of betting across the country be 21 - a move intended to protect teens from an activity all sides agree should be for adults only.

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Second, a new Gallup poll confirms that teenage gamblers are more likely than adults to be addicted to betting. But, in a curious dichotomy, the poll also suggests that teens are more skeptical about gambling than adults - and are quicker to point out its faults.

Indeed, while 11 percent of adult gamblers say they wager too often, 20 percent of teenage gamblers say the same. Yet while just one-third of adults - 32 percent - oppose gambling, nearly half of all teens - 47 percent - are against it.

Teens' attitudes on gambling appear to be born of experience. "These are the first kids to grow up with gambling all around them," says Richard McGowan, a professor of economics at Boston College. Today there's less of a stigma on gambling than in the past, he says. So, on the one hand teens are more ready and able to try it.

But on the other hand, "they're quicker to see its harmful effects" because they're less enamored of it than baby boomers, who are still enjoying their new access to this once-taboo activity.

Take Brad Stuart, a lanky teen from Elgin, Ill., home of the state's most-popular riverboat casino. On his 18th birthday last year he splurged on $13 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets - and even won $60. But that's it, he says. He has already quit. "You should really only gamble when you're totally sure you're going to win" - and that's hardly ever, so the teen sporting cargo shorts says he won't be going to casinos or buying any more lotto tickets.

But not all teens are so convinced. Jeyvi Hernandez, a senior at Reseda High School in Reseda, Calif., says he doesn't gamble - but other kids at his school do. The two most popular games are poker and dice. Mostly the bets are small. But sometimes things get out of hand.

"They bet their watches - good watches," he says. Then, when they lose, "their parents call [the school] demanding their kid's watch be returned."These and other bets get some teens in trouble.

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In fact, observers say the typical teen attitude of invincibility can make them think they'll succeed in gambling.

Sense of invincibility

The attitude is that, "The odds don't apply to me because I'm invincible," says Paul Presson, a psychology professor and gambling researcher at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. "So even if I'm playing a game with a 50-50 chance, since the odds don't apply to me, I'll win more."

It's this attitude that the over-21 recommendation by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission is intended to combat. Currently, people 18 and older can legally participate in some forms of gambling, particularly state lotteries.

Schools are also trying to reverse teens' desire to gamble. In Minnesota - considered a model in this area - many middle-schoolers are exposed to a curriculum called "All Bets Are Off." In it, they're taught such things as the statistical fact that they're more likely to be killed by terrorists while on vacation abroad than they are to win the lottery.

Other states are stepping up enforcement. New Jersey is expanding its successful "Cops in Shops" program - which uses undercover police to stop minors from buying alcohol - into casinos. Plainclothes police officers will patrol casino floors on the lookout for minors. Last year Atlantic City. had more than 400 arrests for underage gambling.

But many teens don't need to be persuaded. In fact, the skepticism registered by the Gallup poll is good news to industry insiders. "Critics have been saying we're trying to get kids involved in gaming," says Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the Washington-based American Gaming Association, a lobbying group. "I'm heartened by these numbers."

Teens see harm to community

Mr. Fahrenkopf was more dismissive of the 70 percent of teenagers who say gambling damages family and community life. (By contrast, 56 percent of adults say the same thing.) The poll, conducted in May, surveyed 1,523 Americans 18 years or older and 501 ages 13 to 17. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for adults, 5 percentage points for teens.

Take Erica Sanchez, a high-schooler in Reseda, Calif. "I've seen some adults lose property over this, and a lot of the time it's their children who end up suffering...." It's the adult's decision whether or not to gamble, she says, and a small bet occasionally may be OK. But "if the person is married and has children, they shouldn't do it."

*James Blair in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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