Gambling dollars come with a price.
As an Oregonian, the odds are good that you've bought a lottery ticket, visited a casino, or played video poker on one of the 763 machines in Lane County bars, lounges and restaurants. Legal opportunities to gamble in our state are everywhere, and have grown so much during the last decade that Oregon now offers more types of gambling than any state except Nevada.
Lately, there has been talk about adding even more gambling opportunities to help Oregon out of the budget mire. Our new governor recently stated he's willing to look into revenue areas - like video slot machines - that he wasn't considering before these difficult economic times. These new video slot games would certainly increase revenue for our state - but at what social cost?
Data from 2002 show that problem gamblers in treatment overwhelmingly favor video poker (74 percent of clients) to any other form of gambling. Combine that information with the fact that more people prefer video slots to video poker, and you've got an interesting question: What might video slots do to problem gambling prevalence rates in Lane County?
We've also heard about the battle for a Florence casino. Ron Brainard, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, scoffs at opponents' ideas that the casino would cause any problems besides more traffic. "Before they say these things, they ought to do some research about what does happen" (Register-Guard, March 6).
Jeff Marotta, Oregon's manager of problem gambling services, has researched the effects of casinos, and estimates that adding a casino raises the problem gambling rates in the area by about 25 percent. In Lane County, this could mean countless hundreds affected. One compulsive gambler costs society about $26,000 a year, but there are many other human costs to consider.
More than 7,000 people in Lane County have a gambling problem. For these people and their families, gambling has turned from occasional fun to a relentless focal point. They're playing with money meant for food, home, family and education. Many are playing with their lives; studies have shown that about 20 percent of gamblers in treatment have attempted suicide. Gambling's strong grip is exemplified by research showing problem gamblers' brains respond similarly to those of substance abusers - only the gambler doesn't need to ingest any substances to get high.
Yet many of us don't recognize the dangers of problem gambling - why is that? Probably because problem gambling is incredibly insidious. You won't see your coworker staggering when she just comes back from playing video poker, you won't smell March Madness on your friend's breath, and you may not even find the bills that your own spouse hides. It often takes until the gambler is in deep debt or depression, or far into family, job or criminal crises, before someone sees the problem.
That's why Lane County is celebrating the first-annual National Problem Gambling Awareness Week, March 10-16. We want people to come away with two main points: awareness and hope.
First, be aware of the problem and look for warning signs, like missing money, mounting debts, preoccupation with gambling, or unexplained whereabouts. Next, know there is hope. Help is available. Treatment in Oregon is award winning - and it's free, funded through legislation by the Oregon Lottery.
Lane County's gambling treatment program, ACES Meridian, saw almost 200 gamblers and family members last year. ACES also houses the state's gambling Help Line, 1-877-2-STOP-NOW, which is answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week by a certified and trained gambling treatment counselor. Lane County also offers phone-based gambling counseling and the newly formed Gambling Awareness & Prevention Program, which provides prevention and outreach services to help reduce the harm of problem gambling in our communities.
Fortunately, most of us don't have a problem when we gamble. But we can't ignore that there is a problem, that it's serious, and that it affects thousands in Lane County. Even in these tough economic times, we also can't ignore the problem as gambling opportunities become increasingly available in our communities.
Julie Hynes is the gambling prevention coordinator for the Lane County Health & Human Services Department's Gambling Awareness & Prevention Program. Nita Vannice is program director of the ACES Meridian Gambling Treatment Program.