Gambling on the rise: Is America becoming addicted?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 9 2011 11:23 a.m. MDT

The past decade has seen cash-strapped state governments rely more and more heavily on gambling for revenue, authorizing more casinos and setting up slot machines at racetracks. The industry's rapid growth worries critics, who say building more gambling venues drives up more than profits; it's also driving a rise in gambling addiction.

In 2007, Americans lost more than $92 billion gambling, 800 percent more than they lost in 1982, Sam Skolnik, author of the newly released book "High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction," told Daily Finance. From 2000 to 2005, the number of Americans who patronized casinos increased by 20 million.

"In 2009 and 2010, officials in 37 states pushed for new or expanded gambling in order to bring in more revenue," Skolnik said. "There are unprecedented budget gaps. Legislators think gambling is a painless revenue stream that is better than raising taxes or making tough budget cuts."

Gambling addiction, though, is associated with bankruptcy, foreclosure, spouse abuse, child neglect and crime, Skolnik said. In this way, Baylor University professor Earl Grinols estimates that addicted gamblers cost the United States between $32.4 billion and $53.8 billion a year.

"When the addiction rate increases, so does the cost to society," Skolnik said.

About two million American adults are pathological gamblers, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. Another four to six million report experiencing problems because of their gambling.

Gambling is now legal in some form in every state but Hawaii and Utah. The closer or more accessible a casino is, the greater the risk a person will develop a gambling addiction, according to a recent study from the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo. Living within 10 miles of a casino can increase the chance of becoming a problem gambler by 90 percent.

Not all scholars agree that more casinos translate into an increase in addiction, though.

In an article published recently in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Howard Shaffer, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, concluded the rate of pathological gambling has remained relatively stable despite the increase in gambling opportunities.

"When gambling becomes newly available in an area, you'll see some increase in gambling," he told the Chicago Tribune. "Some people who would not have gambled become willing to try."

But, he said, the novelty soon wears off.

Gambling addiction is not "a relentless progressive disorder," Shaffer said. The majority of gamblers are in control. Bad cases of gambling addiction usually indicate deeper mental health problems.

"Of people in the U.S. with gambling problems, about 75 percent had a mental health problem first and a gambling problem second," he said.

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com, Twitter: elizMstuart

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