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Addicts Are Overlooked in Gambling Boom

Office created to address problem is finally funded, but experts say state is more interested in promoting betting

August 03, 2004|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A major expansion of casinos, the lottery, racetracks and card rooms is making California one of the nation's gambling giants. Yet one result of this betting binge has received scant attention from public officials: pathological addiction.

Six years ago, the state created an Office of Problem Gambling but only last year gave it money to operate -- $3 million a year donated by Indian tribes. Despite the windfall, it still has no full-time staff and no plan of action, and has spent only $95,000 on a study.

Gambling addiction afflicts as many as 1 million Californians and often leads to bankruptcy, broken homes, increased crime and occasionally suicide, national studies have shown. Although addiction experts see hope in the newly funded state office, they remain skeptical.

"They don't care. Pretty basic," said former Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, a national expert on gambling. "The people at the top are ignoring a very significant problem. You have a politically powerful industry and you have a lot of ignorance from elected officials."

California spends far more money and attention on promoting gambling than it does on its effects. Today, a panel set up by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will recommend that California join a multi-state lottery to boost ticket sales with record-breaking jackpots. New legal agreements allow some Indian tribes unlimited expansion of slot machines on their land. And two initiatives on the November ballot could expand casino, card room and racetrack gambling.

Although the state spends $110 million a year on Medi-Cal drug and alcohol treatment programs, it has not, amid its casino expansion, spent any taxpayer money on gambling addiction. There are Gamblers Anonymous meetings -- 12-step programs modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous -- throughout the state, but little that costs the addict nothing for treatment.

Pathological addicts talk about being trapped in a constricting life in which nothing but the next pull of the slot machine is important, not even family. A South Carolina woman blamed gambling addiction for her decision to leave her 10-day-old baby in a sweltering car while she played video poker. The infant died. The mother was put on probation, but sent to jail four months ago after being convicted of theft.

"The wreckage from gambling is unbelievable, and there has to be some resources out there for treatment," said Eric Geffner, a gambling addiction counselor in Los Angeles. "That needs to be a priority, but right now the priorities are different."

The newly created Office of Problem Gambling has $2.9 million in the bank and an additional $3 million on the way this year, all donated from Indian tribes. Officials expect the office eventually will employ three or four people.

Other states spend far more than California on addiction programs per capita. Oregon's program -- considered the best in the country, with a large media campaign, research programs and training for lottery workers -- has been allocated $6 million. Minnesota spends $2.4 million a year. Both states have far smaller gambling operations and far smaller populations than California.

There is debate now over what the state should do with the new money to tackle problem gambling. Pathological gambling addiction is considered a lifelong affliction that in some cases should be treated with extensive therapy. Clinical specialists believe compulsive gamblers are trying to reach a sort of psychoactive high akin to taking drugs.

Enticed by Television

A growing number of teenage gamblers, addiction experts say, have been enticed by TV shows such as "Vegas" and by the California State Poker Championship, which featured actor Ben Affleck. Should they be targeted? Should there be concentrated efforts near casinos or a statewide media campaign? Should schools participate?

State officials acknowledge that they are just now focusing on the Office of Problem Gambling. Its budget is not enough to pay for on-demand treatment programs for low-income residents, but is perhaps enough for an effective media campaign.

Schwarzenegger has proposed creating gambling addiction programs under the recent legal agreements with Indian tribes, but those would be negotiated between counties and tribal governments. The new state office would coordinate state and county programs, the governor's office said.

The officials said they would develop a statewide plan after the nonprofit California Council on Problem Gambling provides the results of its $95,000 study.

"There are no guarantees," said Michael Cunningham, deputy director of the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, which is administering the new office. "We're looking at it as the state is making an investment in this issue, and it's our responsibility to really do the best we can."

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