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Casino gambling deepens inequality, study finds

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

In contrast to tobacco executives, who as recently as 1994 infamously testified before Congress that tobacco was not addictive, AGA president Frank Fahrenkopf has openly asserted that gambling is addictive and can "affect brain chemistry in ways that are similar to substance abuse," as he put it in a 2009 address.

But the gaming industry argues that only one percent of the adult population has been found to be vulnerable to damaging behavior. Industry research has focused efforts on identifying and containing those problem gamblers.

Whitehead acknowledges the gaming industry-supported research has been of high quality and that the firewalls have been adequate. But she argues that the resulting research has focused narrowly on individual pathological gambling, sidestepping some critical questions.

"The danger is greater than one percent, and it is increasing as casinos become more accessible," Whitehead said.

An 80/20 problem

A key contention in the “Why Casinos Matter” report is that 40 to 60 percent of casino revenue comes from problem, i.e. addicted, gamblers.

It's a classic 80/20 problem, with 80 percent of the payoff being driven by 20 percent of the clientele, critics of the industry argue. In an appendix, the report points to 11 different sources for this data, including peer-reviewed studies and government reports from Canada and Australia.

The one percent problem gambler figure is an adult population estimate, Patterson said. She said she is not aware of any data on the percentage of casino customers who fit that profile, nor the percentage of revenue that is driven by problem gamblers.

Unanswered questions

Fifteen years later, the commission’s report had little impact, and little has changed on the research front, with the exception that industry-funded research through NCRG has produced substantial information about the psychology and treatment of individual gaming addiction.

The larger sociological and economic questions remain largely unasked and unanswered, Whitehead said. That may explain why the new report by the Council of Casinos offers more questions than answers, and sometimes slips into generalization rather than offering data and footnotes.

To Judy Patterson and the gaming industry, this lack of hard data coming from critics is a symptom of weakness in their arguments.

And yet, Patterson likewise had no data to offer on one key question pressed by Whitehead, namely, the ratio of casino revenue that comes from problem gamblers. That data would be difficult to collect, Patterson protested, because it would involve intrusive customer surveys.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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