States, individuals getting hooked on lawful gambling
On Nov. 8, Minnesotans and citizens in four other states will vote on what some experts say will be the great addiction of the 1990s. Officials call it entertainment.
It used to be called gambling.
Under consideration: legalization of state lotteries, except in Virginia, where a proposal for parimutuel betting is on the ballot. Lottery sales worldwide totaled $45 billion in 1986, according to the latest figure available from Gaming and Wagering Business Magazine.
The craze has even spread as far as China. But the United States is still the largest lottery junkie of all.
Researchers just beginning to understand the nature of compulsive gambling, and probing its relation to legalized gambling, regret that their work was not asked for before lotteries had spread to 28 states.
While tobacco, casual sex, alcohol, and drugs have all come under heavy attack in recent years, primarily on health grounds, state lotteries and other legalized betting have made gambling seem to be an acceptable escape.
``Gambling is a rush like heroin, a big win in gambling creates the same feeling as a coke high,'' says Don Mitchell of the newly founded Council on Compulsive Gambling of Illinois, himself a recovered compulsive gambler.
And the nation is feeling that rush. According to a recent report to a New Jersey commission on gambling, between 1974 and 1987, the volume of legalized gambling in the US increased by 950 percent.
The commission concluded that compulsive gambling in New Jersey is ``on a disturbing rise,'' noting ``continued disparity between the amounts of money being earned from gambling and the amount of money being earmarked to address this serious social issue.'' Outlining the problem
Recently released research, though incomplete, outlines the problem:
Preliminary results of a new study show the percentage of compulsive gamblers among adults to be twice as high as once thought - about 1.5 percent, with 2.8 percent more having serious gambling problems. Sociologist Henry Lesieur of St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., says other evidence suggests an increase in the number of pathological gamblers.
In New Jersey, a recent survey indicates that 36 percent of residents earning less than $10,000 spent one-fifth or more of their household income on the lottery.
Local California surveys indicate that the number of teens gambling for money increased by 50 percent in two years from the start of that state's lottery, their preferred form of gambling, according to psychologist Durand Jacobs. Studies indicate that about 5 percent of teens show signs of problem gambling.
Still, J. Blaine Lewis, president of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, predicts that after Tuesday's elections, ``you'll be able to drive from Maine to California on a northern or southern route and play the lottery in every state.'' Mr. Lewis foresees the next big trend in lotteries as being sports betting.
States themselves are not immune to gambling addiction.
Hooked on lottery revenues, they are turning to ever more intense games and marketing to hook a jaded citizenry. They offer off-track betting to race tracks hurt by the competition. They compete with illegal shadow lotteries, bookies, and loan sharks, who try to get a piece of the action. Some efforts to tone down lottery advertising, as in Missouri, have ended when tickets don't sell.
Only rural North Dakota has resisted this lottery juggernaut at the polls. Earlier this year it stood up as the only state to vote down a free-standing lottery referendum - for the second time.
``It's just like a prairie fire covering the whole country and it's got to be turned around,'' says former North Dakota Democratic-NPL Gov. Arthur Link, sounding like a Winston Churchill of the anti-gambling movement.
While polls show the pro-gambling vote ahead in Minnesota, Idaho, Kentucky, Indiana (where the consitutional change would also allow parimutuel betting), and Virginia, well-organized opponents say they may have a chance to pull some upsets.
They cite recent negative publicity about the flaws of lotteries as school-funding devices, financial woes of some race tracks, and the recent passage of an anti-casino referendum in Detroit, as signs that the tide may turn.
But Valerie Lorenz of the National Center for Pathological Gambling isn't so sure.
``We are in a strong movement to legalize gambling, usually funded by the gaming industry,'' she says, citing efforts to spread dog racing and casino gambling.
Virginia approved a lottery last year, and is on the brink of doing what lottery opponents warned would follow - legalizing parimutuel horse betting.
Dr. Lorenz and some others refer to gambling as the addiction of the 1990s, because they say it is at a stage where alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes were earlier - just being recognized as a serious social problem. Psychiatrist Robert Custer, an expert on compulsive gambling, estimates that there are probably 150,000 Americans who have problems with compulsive gambling in state lotteries.
Research indicates that most compulsive gamblers are involved with gambling such as casino games, sports betting, or horse racing. Those with solely lottery-related problems are considered only a few percentage points of the total number of compulsive gamblers, though many of the others also gamble on lotteries.
No one is sure of the real price of this gambling. Dr. Lesieur says studies so far would place it in the scores of billions just in terms of the cost of gamblers' debts and stolen money.
Last year, by comparison, state lotteries - the largest form of legalized gambling, which have only been around in their modern form since 1964 - netted about $5.6 billion for all the states.
Researchers say there has been no definitive study to prove whether greater availability of gambling prompts more compulsive gambling. But circumstantial evidence is strong in existing studies, say many researchers, that widely available gambling attracts people who have never seriously bet before, and can pave the way for new forms of legal and illegal gambling.
In New Jersey, calls to a hot line for compulsive gamblers that involve the lottery have risen in recent years to nearly one-fourth of the total.
Gamblers Anonymous groups in New Jersey nearly doubled in number in the first four years of legalized casino gambling there. Meanwhile, in California, the opening of off-track betting has led to the formation of new Gamblers Anonymous groups in areas near OTB parlors.
The National Council on Compulsive Gambling this week is inaugurating a national hot line for those seeking help - 1-800-522-4700.
Lottery proponents say the number of players who have problems with gambling is tiny, and that research shows no link between their games and compulsive gambling. ``Our position is that compulsive gamblers are tragic but not typical of lottery players,'' Lewis says.
``State lotteries have been the largest contributor to changing people's attitudes toward gambling,'' counters Lorenz, while agreeing that the games themselves tend to be less addictive than some other games.
In a grocery store in rural Illinois, a poster shows a ``before'' and ``after'' picture of Bob, a ``nerd'' who gets rich in the lottery and gains a gorgeous girlfriend.
The reality was far different for Cindy Disoteo, a mother of two young children in New Jersey, who became so addicted to the state lottery that she would take her children to a Lucky store to furtively buy tickets with money taken from her husband's business.
Today she is in an outpatient treatment program, having racked up a bill of $15,000 in lottery tickets on credit cards and spent $20,000 from the business on them.
Lesieur found in surveys of a New Jersey prison and a Detroit jail that about 15 percent of inmates said gambling led them to prison. An Orwellian twist
To sociologist H. Roy Kaplan, lotteries worldwide have a somehwat sinister side, reminiscent of George Orwell's description of the state Lottery in ``1984.''
Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.
Those working with compulsive gamblers say government needs to shoulder the cost of additional research before legalizing new forms of gambling, as well as education and treatment programs for compulsive gamblers.
A number of states have started to grapple with the problem. For example, Iowa requires that one-half of 1 percent of its gross lottery sales be spent on treatment programs. Illinois earmarks funds from its racing commission for programs, and some other states give general funds.
``It's my position that compulsive gambling is a mental-health problem and lottery people are not experts in mental health,'' Lewis responds.
Wisconsin as part of establishing a new lottery has required that studies be done on compulsive gambling; it also restricts state lottery advertising, as does Virginia in its new lottery. The New Jersey lottery posts hot-line phone numbers on its lottery machines.
Meanwhile, Randy Furniss of the Idaho anti-lottery movement claims that his is ``probably the largest grass-roots effort ever organized in Idaho.''
``Governor Link is fond of saying that lottery proponents in his state said that to approve a lottery in North Dakota they had to drag North Dakota kicking and screaming into the 20th century,'' Furniss says. ``The governor responded that North Dakota was leaping into the 21st century by not passing a lottery. I hope Idaho is going to be following suit.'' He won one, he lost a lot Chicago
Earlier this year, Richard Konieczko of Chicago spent about 80 hours preparing charts and numbers to win a new Illinois State Lottery game.
Mr. Konieczko says he had been obsessed with the lottery before, betting more than $600 a week from his earnings as a tuckpointer-rehabber, which he augmented through illegal sports-bet winnings. He'd spent days picking numbers from license plates and dreamed of numbers by night.
Then through Gamblers Anonymous he quit, only to be lured back when his state began to publicize the new lottery game.
He was spending about $230 a week in tickets on his new system when he accidently skipped a day. That day his number was called. He says he went ``berserk,'' borrowing $2,000 for bets on sports games to finance more buying. He ended up losing $4,000 and almost lost his wife, too. Now he's back in Gamblers Anonymous.