Gambling addiction therapists worry about four new casinos opening in Ohio. Casinos say it’s a good bet that no significant increase in problem gambling will result.
Meanwhile, state agencies charged with combatting the potential impact are grappling with inconclusive data and inadequate funding.
Five times since 1990 Ohio voters have weighed in on casinos. Four times they said no. But in 2009, by a by a 2 to 1 margin, they approved amending the state Constitution to allow casinos in Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Cleveland.
The ballot language said nothing about the impact of problem gambling.
All four previous ballot proposals included specific warnings about what could happen …to problem gamblers like Glenn. WKSU agreed not to use his full name:
“I grew up in a good family and I had nothing. I had no family relationships because I used the people that I loved the most because they were the easiest targets. Lied, stole, manipulated, everything possible. I was homeless, jobless. I was suicidal.”
One in five problem gamblers attempts suicide. No form of addiction has a higher suicide rate.
At the Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland, Dr. Heather Chapman treats a disease called ludomania.
“It’s actually been shown to be most like cocaine addiction.”
Whitney, one of Chapman’s patients, would have blackouts.
“I would not know how it was 5 o-clock in the morning. I was like a zombie, just gambling, gambling, and gambling. I didn’t even want to order a drink because it would distract me.”
She became delusional.
“I might have had $10,000 that night, and the next morning I’m looking for pennies in my car to see if I could get a dollar to gamble one more time because I might win big.”
According to a 2005 Cleveland State University study more than 100,000 more Ohioans might start to think like that this spring. A Plain Dealer analysis predicts Rock Ohio Caesar’s Horseshoe casino will produce about 40,000 new pathological gamblers in Cuyahoga County.
Scott Anderson of the Ohio Department of Alcohol Drug and Addiction Services heads the state’s effort to curb the casino effect. The experience of other states tells him there’ll be an initial spike in problem gambling. He had hoped to complete a baseline survey before the casinos open. That’s now uncertain.
“The money for our department won’t come until the tax revenue comes from the casinos. So we won’t see a whole lot of that funding until well after the casinos are opened. We’ll be behind.”
Tracking any increase in problem gambling will be difficult because few ask for help.
Glenn hid it from everyone. Even the congressman he worked for:
“I was successful on the outside and I had this horrible disease. It got so big that I, too, had to do some jail time.”
Cleveland United Way’s 211 phone bank has been taking problem gambling helpline calls since July. Come spring, Steve Wertheim expects his staff to be overwhelmed.
“Lottery is one thing. I think when we get to the casinos that is a whole different animal. We have actually added staff that have some background in addiction services, and are going to do more training.”
At Cleveland’s Recovery Resources, Jennifer Clegg is the only certified gambling counselor.
“We currently have two clinicians (who) are in process for their certification and working towards a few others just to kind of prepare for …an increase (in) gambling addiction services needed as the casinos do open.”
Mental health clinics like Clegg’s get about 300,000 dollars a year from the Ohio Lottery to treat gamblers. Karen Russo is the lottery’s problem gambling advocate.
“We are supporting six treatment agencies and we provide training to the clinicians out there. It will only enhance the overall program with the additional funding coming from the casinos.”
“I don’t think it’s going to happen , “ says the VA’s Heather Chapman.
“My fear is that it’s going to be siphoned off in too many different directions and a very small portion is going to be going to gambling.”
Strategies to avoid addiction
As Ohio becomes the 22nd state with legalized casino gambling, casino operators say gamblers can protect themselves. Jim Baldacci of Penn Gaming, which is opening casinos in Columbus and Toledo, says one way is “self-exclusion.”
“It allows a person to sign up and say, ‘Hey, I do not ever want to be allowed back here. I don’t want you to allow me to cash a check. I don’t want you to pay me a jackpot. If you see me you will kick me out. And that’s at every one of our casinos.”
Whitney tried “self-exclusion.”
“When I wanted to gamble, I went back and no one stopped me. I would gamble for eight hours, and they would see me go through huge amounts of money and help me get more.”
High rollers like Whitney get freebies, too, and that bothers Ohio Casino Control Commissioner Peter Silverman.
“They try to encourage you to gamble more, stay there longer and spend more money. That’s how they make money. It’s also how you create problem gamblers. What if we had a bar that gave loyalty points to people for staying longer at the bar, consuming more alcohol and drinking higher proof alcohol? People would realize how destructive that would be and it would be barred. But with gambling, that is the mode.”
Jeff, a former Marine, finished the VA’s 35- day residential gambling treatment program last month. He’s now on his way to prison because of the jam his compulsion got him into:
“I used to say when I first came in here that I lost my family. And now I know that I just lost the honor of being with them.”
The impact on families is something Mark of Lyndhurst knows only too well. His former childhood sweetheart became addicted to casinos the first time the couple visited one.
“She would really not leave the casino floor until she didn’t have any money. There were different periods of time where I would … go to bed and come back and she’d still be playing.”
Eventually they lost their home and their lawn-care business.
He’s raising their two sons now. The marriage is over.
“The only thing I blame myself for is that I didn’t seek help earlier and push her to get help in a more serious way.”
That’s never easy, as gambling counselor Lynn Burkey can attest.
“I have a number of times talked with the spouse maybe weekly or every couple weeks for several months until she … was able to convince her loved one to actually come in and talk.”
Burkey counsels gamblers at the Meridian treatment center in Youngstown, close to casinos in Pennsylvania. He does not expect the new casinos in Toledo and Cleveland to increase his caseload:
“There are four or five casinos on the eastern portion border of the state that are within an hour to an hour fifteen minutes of Youngstown. We have the gambling problems. We’ve had them for a long time.”
Danger of winning
Dr. Chapman worries most about first-time casino visitors getting hooked because of the new opportunity to gamble:
“ People within fifty miles of that new availability there’s a marked increase in the incidence of pathological and problem gambling.”
But she says there are ways to keep it under control:
“Not bringing a lot of money with them, not bringing credit cards and so forth, setting specific limits on the actual play time.”
Whitney says she tried all of that, with no luck.
“My fear is that this innocent person’s gonna go up to a slot machine and you know my greatest wish for people is that they lose. Because if they win, I’m afraid for them.”
Research indicates a marked increase in pathological gambling among those who win big their first time out.