Gambling spurs social, legal woes

Utah could have up to 88,000 'problem' gamers

By Lee Davidson, Lois M. Collins and Dennis Romboy
Deseret Morning News

Published: Wednesday, June 29 2005 9:02 a.m. MDT

Players at a Texas Hold 'Em card tournament work their cards in December 2004 at the Shilo Inn in Salt Lake City.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Although Utah theoretically outlaws all gambling, studies suggest the state still may have 20,800 to 88,000 "problem gamblers" — people who do not responsibly control their wagering. Problem gambling can bring extra crime, divorce, suicide, bankruptcy and other social ills.

No formal study has been conducted that enumerates how many problem gamblers live in Utah or counts their social costs. However, extrapolations can be made from studies conducted nationally and in neighboring states; from professionals and groups who help local addicts; and groups that deal with resulting financial and family problems.

The fact that Utah could have problem gamblers — despite its gambling ban — is not a surprise. A new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones & Associates shows that 75 percent of Utahns say they have gambled in their lifetimes; 45 percent of those gamblers have wagered on games within the past year.

Gambling is available at casinos, race tracks and lotteries just over the state boundary; at bingo and poker clubs in Utah, which may or may not be operating legally; and on the Internet.

While other states usually set aside a portion of their gambling earnings to treat problem gamblers, none of that flows back to Utah when its problem gamblers return home or when they gamble illegally.

Gambling 'addicts'

Most gamblers consider the games to be a form of entertainment and do not descend into a financial and behavioral morass. However, if studies about Americans and nearby states are a guide, somewhere between 1.3 percent and 5.5 percent of Utah's adults could have serious gambling problems.

Three key national studies — by the National Research Council and the National Opinion Research Center in 1999, both for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, and by Harvard Medical School in 1997 — provide estimates of out-of-control "pathological" gamblers and less-serious "problem" gamblers.

Most gamblers are neither. Pathological gamblers are essentially addicts. Problem gamblers may not be addicts, but they show some or many of the symptoms that pathological gamblers exhibit.

Dr. Michael Kalm, president of the Utah Psychiatric Association, believes that gambling can be as real an addiction as cocaine or alcohol.

The difference, he said, is the mechanism of action, because it doesn't start with ingesting a chemical. In addicts, the pleasure centers of the brain, the dopamine receptors — which are "behind virtually all addictions," he says — light up. When they are overstimulated, they burn out, requiring more and more to get a similar kind of pleasure. And a problem is born.

The behavior similarities are striking.

"The lies you tell to maintain the addiction. The havoc it creates on families, work environments; the lying, stealing, anything to support it. It becomes god, paramount, and you have to do it," Kalm says.

Also like other addictions, kicking it can be brutally hard. Gambling also comes with "triggers," certain situations or locations. And the other commonality, Kalm says, is the tendency to think that "just a little bit" won't hurt. " 'One sip of this wine won't hurt me.' And they're gone. Passing through the airport in Las Vegas, 'Playing one quarter won't matter.' And they're gone."

The national studies estimate the percentage of American adults who have been pathological gamblers sometime in their lives is between 1.2 percent (in the NORC study) and 1.6 percent (in the Harvard study). They say those who were pathological gamblers during the year the studies was conducted ranged between 0.6 percent (NORC) and 1.14 percent (Harvard).

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